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East, south and west façades, 1823-1828 (54)

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The Bank was surrounded by 1460 feet of window-less curtain walls. Some were built as part of the north-east and north-west extensions in 1797 and c. 1805, and the rest was built from 1823 to 1828, as essentially Soane's last building campaign. In some ways, the south, east and west façades are stylistic continuations of those earlier screen walls, with the Corinthian order from the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, curving corners crowned with scrolled acroteria, and blind Tivoli windows. The walls introduce new ornaments in the attic, namely a pier capped with a pediment on four sides, and with a Greek fret motif and lion mask sculptures on the cornice. The new wall also had a picturesque variety of blind doors, blind porticos and antae.

Although he found George Sampson’s entrance front to be designed ‘in a grand Style of Palladian simplicity’, Soane was not as fond of Robert Taylor’s delicate colonnades that fronted the extensions to either side, stating that they were ‘after an Italian model highly decorated & totally different to the centre building to which it was attached’ (Commitee of Building minutes, Bank of England Archives M5/262-6). In 1814 and 1815 Soane had proposed rebuilding Taylor’s walls (see scheme 4:2) but his proposals were ‘postponed’ by the Committee of Building. In 1823, Soane re-stated his case, citing the 'extreme thinness of various parts of the external walls' (a security concern) and their dilapidated state (see scheme 4:2). He also proclaimed the necessity for providing the building with a unified front. Thus, in addition to security and practicality, Soane made an aesthetic argument for the rebuilding.

By 1828, Soane succeeded in completely replacing all of the old facades, including the front of the Sampson’s entrance building (see schemes 2:5 and 3:4 for screen walls in 1797 and c. 1805). It is unknown whether this substantial rebuild was intentional, however, as his dealings with the Committee of Building make it seem as though the building works were the result of a series of unforeseen events. The proceedings began in April 16th, 1823, when the Bank’s Secretary, William Shrubsole, wrote to Soane asking for estimates relating to the cleaning and repairing of the Bank’s exterior (SMA Box 14.65). It was made clear to Soane that the Bank did not want to pull any parts of the building down, only to make repairs. On his presentation to the directors in May 1823, Soane reported on the poor condition of the facades and he offered his clients two estimates: one for simple repairs, costing ten thousand pounds, and the other for strengthening the walls and curving the corners, for twelve thousand pounds. Soane, of course, argued for the latter, stating that the 'convulsed state of the Metropolis' makes it necessary to ensure the bank's security, and that the curved corners would ‘add to the safety and convenience of the public’(Commitee of Building minutes, op.cit). The Committee inspected the plans in March 1824. The designs were only concerned with rebuilding Taylor’s walls. In 1825, however, it became apparent that the Sampson entrance front would have to be rebuilt or re-faced. Once again, Soane presented alternative estimates. Soane’s mason, Grundy, estimated for repairing the facade (either £1204 or £1678, depending on the work) and he estimated for fixing a new Portland stone centre to building, costing £1997 (Abramson). Soane presented models of both options in February 1825. The Committee of Building and other members of the Court of Directors met the next day and on 16 February ordered some alterations. On 3 March the revised model was approved, for the facade to be encased in a new Portland stone front. In May 1825, Soane reported to the Committee of Building that, despite their decisions, the wall was in too poor a state and it needed to be completely replaced. In Spring 1826 the sidewalk on Threadneedle Street was paved. In September 1827 Soane asked for an additional £3000 for completing the exterior of Princes Street.

Soane remarked in Lecture VI of his Royal Academy lectures that the centre of the Bank of England was disproportionately narrow in relation to the wings, but only because the original Bank had been built on a narrow site that was subsequently expanded. He used the Bank's facade as a demonstration of the following: 'From these and other examples which might be produced, it may be concluded that for many of the defects in our buildings, if traced to their real causes, architects would receive praise where they now receive censure, and, what is of more consequence, their imperfections would not be considered beauties, and so often copied by their followers...'(Watkin).

Three drawings held at the Victoria and Albert Museum probably relate to the Bank's façades. Two of the drawings are designs for Corinthian pilasters capitals. One drawing is a detail for an antefix.

Literature: J. Timbs, Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis, London, 1855, pp. 23-26; D. Abramson, Building the Bank of England, 2005, pp. 181-187; D. Watkin, Sir John Soane: Royal Academy Lectures, 2000, p. 150; P. du Prey, Sir John Soane, 1985, in series of 'Catalogues of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum', catalogue 167-168, 173.

Madeleine Helmer, 2011



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Contents of East, south and west façades, 1823-1828 (54)