Soane probably met Hamilton through Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, an early patron. Hamilton was living at Pitt's Petersham Lodge, Richmond, while Soane was making minor alterations to the property in 1781. In 1784, Hamilton commissioned Soane for alterations to his London townhouse at Park Street and in 1788 he asked Soane to find him a suitable house outside of London. Soane first visited Bentley Priory, Stanmore, on 9 August 1788 and by the end of the month Hamilton had purchased the property. Designs began immediately.
The existing house was a simple five-bay Georgian structure built on high ground overlooking Harrow-on-the-Hill and London beyond. Soane extended the house to the east, preserving and promoting these southern vistas. Years later, from 1798-99, an entrance hall was built on the north front. Over these ten years of alterations and additions to the house, Soane also erected new outbuildings on the property, including a dairy and lodge.
The first addition to the house included a library, breakfast room and a circular top-lit ‘tribune’ for displaying Hamilton's pictures and statues. Estimated at £4,625, the design was approved in April 1789 and begun immediately (drawings for the foundations had already been made in March). Before the addition was completed, however, another larger wing was commissioned in October 1789 when Hamilton inherited his family estates and the title of 9th Earl of Abercorn. Designs for this second phase, estimated at £10,450 were approved in November 1798. This extension included a drawing room, eating room and music hall arranged around the recently-built circular tribune. The additions were completed in 1793.
In October 1790, the Earl became 1st Marquess of Abercorn and commissioned various building works at his other properties, including the Irish family estate at Baronscourt, the local church at Stanmore, and various London townhouses. Work at Bentley Priory recommenced in 1798 with designs for a new entrance hall, additional bedrooms over the offices, an altered kitchen and a repositioned principal staircase. A dressing room for the Marchioness is also mentioned in Soane's office day books for work at Bentley Priory. The new entrance hall was built to partly conceal the north front of the old house. The addition spanned the width of the old facade and was surrounded by plantings. It was designed in a Greek style. Visitors were led from a porte-cochère into the dimly-lit vaulted vestibule lined with Doric columns.
Although efforts were made to establish a symmetrical exterior, the final effect of so many additions was a somewhat cumbersome and incoherent building. Soane's drawings in both 1792 and 1798 include thick groves of plantings to disguise parts of the north front. Clearly he was not completely satisfied with his work, showing the building in his Royal Academy lectures: 'Will such an appearance as this lead any person to imagine it to be one of the principal fronts of a nobleman's residence? Does it not rather indicate the exterior of an hospital or an extensive Manufactory?' (Watkin). The interiors are also somewhat disjointed, failing to fully realize Soane’s principles of axes and enfilades.
Soane also made designs for the oubuildings at Bentley Priory from 1789 to 1798. Designs in 1789 show an office wing containing a brewery, laundry and washhouse designed. A rustic lodge was built in 1790, a hot wall and fruit sheds in 1792, and an ornamental dairy in 1798.
John Pullinger served as clerk of works at Bentley Priory for the last phase of building works, from 1798 to 1799. Soane's pupil and assistant Henry Hake Seward also oversaw much of the building work during this time, with assistance from John Caley and Matthew Lamburn. The earlier building works from 1789 to 93 were overseen by Soane, who visited the property often.
Bentley Priory was redecorated by John Crace in 1802 and altered by Robert Smirke from 1812 to 1813. After alterations by subsequent owners, in 1880 the house was converted to a hotel. It later served as a girls' school. The property was sold in 1926, the majority being purchased by the Royal Air Force, for whom it served as the headquarters of the Fighter Command in 1940. Fire severely damaged the house in 1947 and 1979. Under a new ownership, planning approval was received in September 2010 for building more than 90 flats on the grounds and converting the house into apartments and a museum dedicated to the RAF.
A model of the Greek entrance hall was made in 1798 (1367 M). The basic model has no base, allowing one to view the vaulted ceiling from below. A drawing of Bentley Priory by Soane's office is in the drawings collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, showing a view of the interior of the entrance hall, as built in 1798.
Literature: D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1984, p. 138; P. du Prey, Sir John Soane, 'catalogue of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum', cat.212, p.70; P.Dean, Sir John Soane and the Country Estate, 1999, pp.64-77
Madeleine Helmer, 2011.
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.
Browse (via the vertical menu to the left) and search results for Drawings include a mixture of Concise catalogue records – drawn from an outline list of the collection – and fuller records where drawings have been catalogued in more detail (an ongoing process).
Contents of Bentley Priory, Harrow, London: (executed) two additions, outbuildings and an entrance hall addition for John James Hamilton, later 9th Earl, 1st Marquess of Abercorn, 1788-1799, 1805 (178)
- Surveys of Bentley Priory and surrounding properties, 1788 (3)
- Presentation drawings of a design for the south front and variant designs for the entrance front, February 1789 (3)
- Presentation drawings of designs No I, II and III February 1789 (8)
- Designs for offices, 23 February 1789
- Presentation drawings for design No IV, executed design, March 1789 (4)
- Design for the exterior, 31 March 1789
- Working drawing for the roof timbers of the new wing, 29 July 1789
- Variant designs for finishings to the library, 31 October 1789 (2)
- Working drawings of finishings to the library, 3 November 1789 (4)
- Designs for finishings to the breakfast room, 31 October 1789 (2)
- Designs for finshings to the bedrooms, 31 October 1789 (2)
- Designs for finishings to the attic, 31 October 1789 (2)
- Working drawings for mouldings and chimney-pieces in the breakfast room, bedrooms and attic, 3 and 6 November 1789 (7)
- Designs for finishings to the picture room, 6 November 1789 (2)
- Working drawings for cornices in the picture room, 6 November 1789 (4)
- Designs for finishings to the staircase, 7 November 1789 (2)
- Working drawings for mouldings to the staircase, 7 November 1789 (2)
- Working drawing for unidentified base moulding
- Presentation drawings showing alternative designs for a second addition, 15 October 1789 (4)
- Presentation drawings for variant designs of a second addition, 17 October 1789 (8)
- Presentation drawings and design showing alternative designs for a second addition, one dated 19 November 1789 (2)
- Presentation and design drawings for the new wing, datable to late-Novmber 1789 (6)
- Working drawings for the new wing, one dated 26 November 1789 (3)
- Designs for the exteriors of the new wing, 4 December 1789 (3)
- Working drawing for the floor timbers and flues in the new wing, 27 March 1790
- Designs for a lodge, June 1790 (2)
- Working drawing for the wells and drains at Bentley Priory
- Working drawings for cornice to the eating room, August and September 1790 (3)
- Working drawings for finishings to the drawing room, 15-21 October 1790 (3)
- Designs for finishings to the drawing room, 16-21 October 1790 (3)
- Working drawings for the doors in the eating room, 21 October 1790 (2)
- Designs for finishings to the drawing room, eating room and music hall (3)
- Presentation drawing for exhibition at the Royal Academy, showing the interior of the music hall, exhibited 1792
- Working drawings for finishings to the eating room, 21 October 1790 (3)
- Working drawing for the music hall, 25 November 1790
- Working drawings for the steward's room and servants' hall in the basement, 30 November 1790 (2)
- Working drawing for the water closet, 16 March 1791
- Working drawing for the basement vaults, 2 May 1791
- Working drawings for the chimney-pieces in the eating room, drawing room, music hall and unidentified, April-July 1791
- Variant designs for furniture in the drawing room (2)
- Working drawings for the roof timbers, August and September 1792 (5)
- Design for a hothouse, 23 August 1792
- Drawings of the music hall as built, some measured, August 1798 (3)
- Drawing and presentation drawing of the music hall, one dated August 1798 (2)
- Variant designs for the dairy, one presented to Lord Abercorn in September 1797 (5)
- Designs for alterations to the office wing, February and 5 April 1798 (4)
- Survey and designs for the Marchioness's dressing room, August 1798 (2)
- Presentation drawings of alternative designs for the entrance hall, 2 January 1798 (3)
- Presentation drawings for entrance hall in a Gothic style, 25 January 1798 (2)
- Presentation drawing for the entrance hall in a Doric style, 25 February 1798
- Designs for the entrance hall, April 1798 (2)
- Design for the interior of the entrance hall
- Variant designs for the entrance hall, cApril 1798 (4)
- Design for the entrance hall, 28 April 1798
- Variant designs for the entrance hall, showing the introduction of semicircular-plan alcoves (3)
- Presentation drawings of the entrance hall, one for exhibition at the Royal Academy, one dated 1 May 1798 (3)
- Working drawings for the basement and foundations, 1 May 1798 (2)
- Variant designs for the exterior of the entrance hall, mostly May 1798 (5)
- Designs for the interior of the entrance hall, 21 and 25 May 1798 (2)
- Working drawing for the exterior, 21 May 1798
- Drawings of the exterior by JM Gandy, August and September 1798 (4)
- Working drawings for finishings in the entrance hall (2)
- Design and working drawings for the inner hall, 28 and 29 January 1799 and March 1799 (4)
- Alternative designs for a stove in the entrance hall in the form of the upper part of a suit of armour, one dated 31 August 1799 (2)
- Design and record drawings of the entrance and inner halls as executed, two dated 1805 (3)
- Design for the farm buildings