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London: St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, Islington: unexecuted competition designs, 1777 (9)

Signed and dated

  • 1777
    Main Year


St Luke's Hospital in Moorfields was founded in 1750 by a group of philanthropic apothecaries and others. It was designed gratis by George Dance the Elder in 1750-1 and after his death, his son (George Dance the Younger) succeeded him as Surveyor to the Hospital. Originally built for 25 patients, it was further enlarged but by by 1771 was overcrowded and hence the decision to build a larger hospital on a different site. In 1776 ground was leased fronting Old Street and a competition was advertised from 22 April 1777. Entries with at least two plans, a section and an elevation of the principal front drawn to a scale of 14 feet to an inch had to be submitted by 31 May, A first prize of £100 and a second prize of £50 were offered.

The idea of a competition was unusual at that time, the only precedent in England being Blackfriars Bridge, 1759. Dance may have suggested it to the Building Commtttee and, because of his position as Surveyor, would have been ineligible. This might have suited him well since he would be under no obligation to work without a fee and Dance may also have hoped that the competition would be won by Soane or even by James Peacock, his indispensable chief assistant. An elevation for St Luke's, attributed to Peacock, is among Dance's drawings (SM, D4/1/1 and see Lever, op.cit below, catalogue [34].3). As it turned out, neither of Soane's designs was successful and nor were any of the competition entries commissioned. Instead Dance was asked to design the new St Luke's. He did so, in three building phases between 1782 and 1789, charging his usual fee of 5% (£2,227 of the £44,450 contract sum) and employing Soane to help with, for example, the contract drawings (SM, D4/2/1-7, Lever, op.cit. below, [34].5-11). Soane's Note book 1 has two references to St Luke's, that is, 'Lunatic Hospital &c' (6 July 1781) and 'Lunatic Hospital, items of work, and quantities of material for same' (25 July 1781).

'St Luke's as built to a radically trimmed budget, looks a lot like the simpler of Soane's two designs, only flattened out' (P. du Prey, op.cit.below, p.52). The supposition is that Dance's built design owed something to Soane's competition design 'N0 7' (drawings 4-7). But it can be viewed the other way - that Dance was retrieving elements of planning and of elevational treatment that he had suggested to Soane. 'Was there possibly an element of collusion in the behavious of the two? Whatever the circumstances, Soane swallowed his pride and never revealed his drawings. His defeat at the St Luke's competition remained ... one of his best-kept professional secrets' (du Prey, op.cit.below, p.53).

Literature. P.du Prey, John Soane, the making of an architect, 1982. Chapter 3 (Architecture for madness: the St Luke's competition); J.Lever, Catalogue of the drawings of George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and of George Dance the Elder (1695-1768) from the collection of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, 2003, catalogue [34] (St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics)

Jill Lever, September 2008



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of London: St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, Islington: unexecuted competition designs, 1777 (9)