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London: National Debt Redemption Office, Old Jewry, City of London: designs, working drawings and drawings for exhibition, 1817-18, 1819, 1823 (100)

National Debt Redemption Office

W. Marston Acres in his invaluable book The Bank of England from Within... wrote of the beginnings of the National Debt Redemption Office that 'The National Debt Commissioners had, in 1811, leased from the Bank for a term of fourteen years a house at the south-east corner of Bank Street, which had been known previously as "Will's Coffee House", but by 1817 the business of the Commissioners had increased to such an extent that these premises became inconvenient, and the Directors of the Bank asked Soane to submit plans and an estimate for building an office in Old Jewry. The plans were approved in February 1818, and the existing houses belonging to the Bank in Old Jewry were then pulled down and a new building erected on the site. By the end of 1819 the National Debt Office was completed, and the Commissioners moved there in May 1820.

It was the wish of the Commissioners to place a statue of William Pitt in the new offices, and the Directors of the Bank, upon being consulted, declared that they had "no objection" to this being done. A Committee was appointed to collect subscriptions towards the cost of the statue, but no room could be found for it in the new building. At the request of the Chancellor of the Exchequer plans were prepared for enlargement of the National Debt Office, and by November 1823 the additional buildings had been completed and the statue placed therein.'

Acres' account is important because the design drawings catalogued here date from October 1817 to November 1818 though there are also two drawings that were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 and 1823. The opening of the National Debt Office in May 1820 and the delayed realization of the Pitt Cenotaph three years later would not be evident from the drawings alone though there are some clues in the minutes of the meetings of the Committee of Building of the Bank of England (SM archive). However, the drawings do show that the original brief of two offices for the clerks, a hall for the public and an office and private apartments for the director expanded to include offices for new departments dealing with annuities, tontines, power of attorney, savings and so on; as well as accommodation for Richard Westmacott's bronze statue of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). Pitt had been instrumental in reducing the National Debt and reforming its management when he became Prime Minister, at the age of 24, in 1783. Soane knew Pitt for he had altered and added to Pitt's Holwoood House in Kent, 1786, 1796-99 (q.v.) and owed his appointment as architect to the Bank of England to Pitt's influence.

Though the Bank of England initially owned only about two-thirds of the site for the prospective National Debt Office, all the front elevations included the premises belonging to the firm of Messrs Mello, Pead & Co. who were soon bought out. Much time was spent by Soane and his office in designing and re-designing the principal elevation facing Old Jewry for which there are 14 variant designs (A-N). A programme of three storeys, attic and basement with round-headed windows (save for attic and basement) was consistently used through out. Every front elevation has on the left-hand side a narrow bay, only slightly wider than the 3 foot width of a door, that is inconspicuous until variant designs J to N. At the other end of the building, a single storey porch facing Meeting House Court appears (15-21) then disappears (23-24), re-appears (25-26) and disappears for good thereafter. Instead, there is a door in the left-hand bay of the side elevations (35,26,39) and later still, a door is shown on the right-hand side of the front elevation (58, 62, 63, 71, 89, 91). These marginal elements have been ignored when describing the front as six-bay (4, 9, 15) or five-bay (all of the remaining elevations and perspectives). The six-bay designs have four-bay attics (8, 9, 15), the early five-bay designs have three-bay attics (16, 17). Thereafter all of the five-bay fronts have full (five-bay) attics. Public entrance to the building is through two doors (second and fourth bays) except for the early designs with six bays (second and fifth bays). This is true of variant designs A to G but from H to N, there is a single large public entrance. In design H this is in the centre bay, in the following designs I-N it is in the second bay from the left. The public now enter the building through this off-centre door that takes them through the 'public hall' either directly to the proposed Cenotaph or, indirectly, to a series of ground floor offices (cf plan, drawing 55). The first floor (cf plan, drawing 68) now contains further offices served by a stair with an entrance on the extreme left of the building (see variant design J). Later designs for the front (K to N) balance the smaller left-hand door with a matching one on the right; both given more presence by a pediment or cornice.

Wall plans and sections as well as perspectives show the early introduction of the 'loggia' element in Soane's design for the front elevation. Properly, this refers to a covered open space, often arcaded, on one side of a building. Here, it shows itself in the recessed three central bays of door-window-door in variant designs C to G and five recessed bays of window-door-windows x 3 of J to N. The change was because of the location of the Pitt Cenotaph in the left-hand half of the building.

The building material was stone, rusticated and banded initially, then banded on the lower half of each storey only, then on the ground floor only and then none at all. All of the designs have pilasters of which most are panel pilasters. They may be applied to each storey or cover two storeys (giant pilasters) and serve to emphasise the projection and recession of the upper bays and to mark the distinction between the five-bay 'screen' and the narrow bay to the left with its utilitarian arrangement of door and windows. Drawing 47 is revealingly inscribed '... the Screen / in Front of the National Debt Office' which suggests something of how Soane viewed the designs for the principal elevation or facade.

For the side elevation facing Meeting House Court there are four different designs (35/36, 39, 72 and 90). There are none for the other side as the perspectives (21, 24, 26, 34, 40, 58, 91) show that there is here an existing house with a ground floor shop. Similarly, there are no (surviving) drawings for the elevation to the back where stood the New Bank Building in Princes Street designed by Soane in 1807-10 (q.v.). Other than rustication and pilasters, Soane's ornament for the building included skyline elements such as balustrading, antefixes and pediments in various configurations and (71) a choice of an acroterion decorated with anthemion and rosette or, a four-stage finial that was eventually used as an ornament for the interior of the Pitt Cenotaph (see drawing 79).

Ornamental details on the building include a 'spinning top' motif (drawings 4 and 9) first found in Soane's student design for a Triumphal Bridge, 1776. The source for this design is not known. The round-headed windows used in each of the variant designs offered scope for some kind of decorative treatment. Most of them were recessed and some (17-20, 26, 62) have the heads outlined with an elegant incised semicircle with Greek fret stops. Others have the semicircular head dressed in a paler stone (16, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 58, 62, 71, 89, 91). The final or near-final design N (drawings 89 and 91) has a string course below the first and second floors that has an elongated label under each window that appears as early as drawing 16 or in another form, drawing 15.

The planning of the National Debt Office was made more complicated but also more interesting by the introduction of the Cenotaph commemorating William Pitt the Younger. It's resolution in tribune form in a generous space with direct access from the outside must have been satisfying to Soane. The first drawing to include a reference to a Pitt memorial is a ground floor plan with a dais labelled 'Statue' (drawing 42, dated 16 December 1817). The tribune form was adopted from the start (43-46, dated 17-20 December 1817) and the location of it altered the overall plan for the National Debt Office (48-52, end of January 1818). Further designs included the only one not to follow the tribune form (61). A later plan (68, March-April 1818) shows the tribune in its own courtyard as do sections 80 and 81. Drawings for the Pitt Cenotaph were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 and 1823 (81 and 98). Its form has been well described by Stroud: 'It occupied a rectangular space defined by four round-headed arches between which pendentives were linked to form the rim of a circular opening to an upper storey. Here a peristyle of eight Corinthian columns supported an entablature and a dome with a glazed lantern.'

During the period from October 1817 to November 1818 when most of the drawings for National Debt Office were made, there were six pupils in the office supervised by Soane's right-hand man - George Bailey and no clerks, assistants or improvers. All of the pupils contributed to the making of drawings, in particular Parke and Foxhall.

The National Debt Office with the Pitt Cenotaph was demolished in 1900. Pitt's statue is now in Pembroke College, Cambridge. There are in the Soane Museum, three models for the Pitt Cenotaph together with models of details. These were catalogued in 1969 by John Wilton-Ely (see reference below).

J. Soane, Designs for Public and Private Buildings, 1832, p. 61, plate xlviii; W. Marston Acres, The Bank of England from Within, 1694- 1900, Vol. II, 1931, pp. 404-5; J. Wilton-Ely, 'The architectural models of Sir John Soane: a catalogue', Architectural History, XII, 1969, pp. 26-29, figs 17a-d, 181a-c; P. du Prey, Catalogues of architectural drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum: Sir John Soane, 1985, pp. 87-88; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1996, p. 207; G. Waterfield (ed.), Soane and Death: The Tombs and Monuments of Sir John Soane, 1996, pp. 112-113; P. Dean, Sir John Soane and London, 2006, pp. 37 and 167.

Jill Lever, July 2013
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