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Royal Society of Arts, numbers 18 and 19 (later 8 and 6) John Street

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Royal Society of Arts, numbers 18 and 19 (later 8 and 6) John Street

The Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) was founded in 1754 by William Shipley to support improvements in the arts, sciences and manufactures. Within two years there were 200 members, and the original arrangement of meeting in coffee houses and taverns was no longer practical. First, the RSA acquired a property in Castle Court on the Strand, and then in 1759 they purchased the lease of a warehouse in Denmark Court, north of the Strand. This was altered to meet their needs to designs by Sir William Chambers (1722-96), but knowing that the lease in Denmark Court would end in 1774, in 1770 the RSA advertised for architectural proposals for an alternative building.

At this time the Adam brothers – both members of the RSA – were in the process of building the Adelphi, and James Adam approached the RSA in 1771 about including a new building for them within that complex. Discussions continued until 1772 when construction of the RSA building began at number 18 (later number 8), on the north side of John Street (later John Adam Street) and taking up two townhouse-sized plots. This contained display rooms on the ground floor, a great room for meetings on the first floor, offices on the second floor, and a secretary’s house next door at number 19 (later number 6). James Adam estimated that the cost to build this would be £5,000, with an annual rent of £300, plus an annual ground rent of £59.13s. After negotiations the annual rent was reduced to £270, and the RSA paid £1,000 in advance. The foundation stone was laid on 28 March 1772 and the RSA took possession of the building in 1774.

In 1777-1801 the great room was furnished with a series of large history painting by James Barry, The Progress of Human Knowedgle and Culture. Later, in 1882, the RSA building was the first in London to be fitted with electrical light, powered by a dynamo driven by a gas engine. In the 1930s the RSA rented space in the two neighbouring buildings, numbers 20 and 21 John Street (later 2 and 4 John Adam Street), and in 1957 they acquired a 99-year lease of 18 Adam Street, previously the Adelphi Tavern building, purchasing the freehold of these buildings in 1977, 1979 and 1980, and creating a block from what was previously five individual premises.

All of the RSA’s buildings from Adam’s Adelphi survive, albeit with various alterations having been made. A mansard roof has been built across the entire block; a lecture theatre had been installed in the former wine vaults under the Adelphi Tavern, with an additional lecture theatre in part of the old subterranean roadway; various chimneypieces from the RSA’s two original buildings are included in an auction catalogue of 1936; Adam designed doorcases, window surrounds and chimneypieces were then installed in the RSA buildings in 1957 from the demolished portion of Bowood House, Wiltshire. The only original Adam chimneypiece in the RSA building is to be found in one of the ground-floor rooms at number 20 (later number 4). There are extant Adam ceilings, for example in the former front drawing room of number 20 (later number 4) (Adam volume 13/41), and in the Committee Room of number 19 (later number 6) and in the RSA research room at number 21 (later number 2), but no drawings survive for either of these ceilings.

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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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