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New Law Courts - First Scheme, 1820-26 (13)

Design Note:-
The origins for the wholesale reconstruction of the Law Courts at Westminster began with a direction from the Surveyor General, Colonel Stephenson, dated 12 July 1820. This asked Soane to prepare a plan and estimate for the Lords of the Treasury with as little delay as possible for removing the Courts of King’s Bench and Chancery from Westminster Hall and to erect them on the west side of that Building. This bald direction gives no suggestion of the logistical or architectural problems such a proposal would raise. The entries in the Day Books record that Charles Papendiek and Arthur Mee were engaged in drawing plans of the Courts and buildings in mid-August that year, but no drawings appear to survive from this first survey. Sawyer hypothesises that SM 53/1/11 is a survivor of the latter, and while it has clearly been reused for a preliminary design and dated 1822, it can feasibly be associated with the 1820 survey. What appears of great significance is an apparent copy of a drawing which can be associated with the schemes prepared by John Vardy for rehousing the Law Courts as part of his wider proposals for the Palace of Westminster site (SM 37/1/23). Knowledge of the drawings for this and the earlier scheme by William Kent (the “Law Courts” scheme of 1739-48) may well have propelled Soane to consider a wholesale reconstruction of the existing accommodation.

The earliest surviving plan of Soane’s solutions to such a restricted site survives as SM 53/1/15. Dated 18 October 1820, it came at the end of a concentrated period of focused design on the Law Courts, which the Day Books record began on 7 October. The stimulus for this activity may have been a meeting at the Office of Works on 5 October with John Nash and Robert Smirke; Soane’s fellow attached architects. Prior to this, the Day Book entries for 3 and 5 October note that Soane surveyed the Courts in person, rather than delegating this task. Of Soane’s pupils, Edward Foxhall assisted him from 9-12 October, with Charles Papendiek and George Bailey working on 13 and 14 October respectively. The drawing itself shows the key features which reappear in different combinations throughout the subsequent alternative designs. The northern flanking range and pavilion tower for The Stone Building are completed to align with St Margaret’s Street. This façade contains designated entrances for the different Courts and their officials. The Courts of Exchequer and Common Pleas are retained largely as extant, but the Courts of Chancery, King’s Bench and the Bail Court now appear between the buttresses of Westminster Hall. The additional ancillary offices are arranged around open areas and circulation across the site is unified by breaking new doorways through existing fabric (as is clear from the west wall of the Hall) and by a corridor of communication along the eastern side of The Stone Building.

A series of intermittent revisions followed over the course of June - July 1821, which have few corresponding entries in the Day Book for this period. Direct attribution of these drawings to Soane's pupils is therefore difficult, and speculation has been avoided, though Arthur Mee and Charles Papendiek are both recorded as working on Law Courts drawings in early June. The focus of the successive revisions was to integrate the proposed design with the existing structures, which at this stage included both the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Exchequer, and devise sufficient circulation routes. The latter involved breaching four new archways to give direct access from Westminster Hall and experiments with semi-circular alcoves and quadrants, as shown in SM 51/1/16 and SM 53/1/19. While there are minor changes in configuration, the perimeter of the proposed new buildings remains the same; the flanking range and pavilion tower to the north side of The Stone Building would be realised, following the line of St Margaret’s Street. A discreet block (on a different alignment) would be built at the latter’s junction with the existing Court of Exchequer, to make good the loss of the Augmentation Office. The accompanying exterior perspective (SM 53/8/2) demonstrates the markedly understated treatment of this proposal’s elevations, which are entirely deferential to the existing structures and display little by way of characteristic Soanian features. SM 53/1/19 also records the first ideas for providing the Courtrooms with lantern lights; a practical solution which became the leitmotif of the interiors. The placing of Courtrooms between the bays determined by the Hall’s buttresses allowed for compact provisions of ancillary spaces, and for the more prestigious courts, the opportunity for articulation concomitant with their status. SM 53/1/13 is the consummation of this period of revision, where the curved elements are expunged from the circulation and ancillary spaces, resulting in a rigorous, gridiron-like solution. There is also a perceivable lessening of the wish to preserve existing fabric, largely dictated by the confined nature of the site. The Court rooms are articulated with free-standing columns, arranged flanking openings in the smaller Courtrooms’ lateral walls and to great effect as a pair of colonnades for the Court of Exchequer.

As the inscription in Soane’s hand records, SM 53/1/13 was presented to the Board of the Treasury on 27 July 1821, in the presence of Colonel Stephenson. Having secured the Treasury’s support for this proposal, it appears likely that this design was taken as a working proposal which could be revised subsequently, following consultation with the various Court officials. There is a clear gap in the next phase of revisions, for the next drawing SM 53/1/14 is dated 27 December 1821. Here, Soane’s revisions and annotations crystallise the designated entrances along The Stone Building’s façade to St Margaret Street. This coincides with a spate of new activity on the Law Courts, recorded in the Day Books from late December to the end of January 1822. Again, Arthur Mee appears to have been the primary draughtsman for this period, with assistance intermittently provided by George Bailey and Charles Papendiek. As is evident from the remaining drawings related to this proposal, Soane would return to this superseded design as late as 26 November 1826. Undoubtedly tinged with hindsight, SM 53/8/1 seems to emphasise the aesthetic deficiency of this proposal’s elevations to New Palace Yard. It is made more innocuous through the prominent use of red brick; a fact not emphasised in earlier perspective views.
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