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London: Royal Hospital, Chelsea for the Board of Commissioners, 1807-1835 (226)

- 1682-1692
Wren designs and builds Royal Chelsea Hospital

- 1692
The Hospital opens its doors to army pensioners

- May 1807
Soane succeeds Samuel Wyatt as Clerk of Works

- 1807-1809
Various repair work is carried out on old buildings, including minor alterations to the Clerk of Works’ House

- 20 December 1808
Dr Moseley suggests acquiring the lease of Yarborough House for conversion to a new Infirmary

- 14 January 1809
Colonel Gordon applies for an 80 year ‘building lease’ on part of Yarborough House land

- 3 February 1809
Soane visits Yarborough House with Sir David Dundas (the Governor)

- 4 February 1809
Soane’s clerks/pupils begin making surveys

- 15 February 1809
A letter from Mr Keate (the Surgeon) to Soane sets out the requirements of the new Infirmary

- February 1809
Colonel Gordon demolishes the garden pavilion attached to the Whitster’s house

- 1 March 1809
Soane submits his initial designs for the new Infirmary

- 11 March 1809
Colonel Gordon is granted the lease of part of Yarborough land for a new villa

- 13 April 1809
Soane submits his report, advocating a detached new Infirmary, on ground leased by Colonel Gordon

- June 1810
Soane revises plans to incorporate Yarborough House, the design is approved and foundation work begins

- 5 November 1812
Soane records presenting estimates for the Infirmary furnishings at a Board meeting at Chelsea

- 1814-1817
Soane replaces Wren’s Stables

- 1815
Soane begins major alterations and additions to the Clerk of Works’ House and builds the new Bakehouse

- 10 September 1815
George Soane’s article criticising Chelsea is published in The Champion

-1815-1820
Soane builds the Agent’s new Offices (designs in the collection at the National Archives)

- 1816
Soane extends Wren’s Gardener’s House for new Secretary’s Offices

- 1817
Board of Commissioners dictates that the new East and West Gates must be in the same style as the old ones
A new Guardhouse is also built this year, in keeping with Wren’s style – probably both a direct result of 1815 criticism

- 1818
Soane builds the new Secretary’s Offices as those provided in 1816 were already insufficient in terms of space

- 1821
Soane builds a new house for the Surgeon and the Whitster

- 1822
Soane builds a new Artificers’ Yard

- 1829
Soane builds smoking room for pensioners

- 1832
Soane builds his last design, for a Doric garden shelter (in Ranelagh Gardens)

-20 January 1837
Soane dies and is without successor. The post of Clerk of Works for Chelsea Hospital is abolished on 1 July 1837


Sir John Soane accepted the post of Clerk of Works to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in May 1807. He was the last in a list of nine men to fill the role and had to work in difficult circumstances, with buildings by then over 100 years old and much dilapidated. He was obliged to use builders and craftsmen employed by the Hospital and not directly by himself (and they were often more expensive and less trustworthy), had to record every penny spent, had to pass every decision by the Board of Commissioners (having to report to the Board once a month on top of this) and was insufficiently reimbursed for his troubles in terms of salary. The needs of Chelsea Hospital, its pensioners and staff had also changed significantly since the establishment’s beginnings – the Napoleonic wars meant an increase in the numbers of both pensioners and staff and many of the buildings were insufficient for these numbers. Despite all these difficulties, Soane was evidently intent upon the role, for the simple reason that he wanted a government post to complete the public roles of his prestigious career. It cannot have hurt, either, that Soane knew he would be working within a grand historical and architectural context.

Chelsea Hospital was established by Charles II, designed by Wren and built between 1682 (when the first foundation stone was laid) and 1692 (when the army pensioners were admitted). The Hospital itself was constructed on the site of James I’s ‘Theological College’ (for the training of Clergy, built in 1609), which was demolished to make way for the new buildings. For this reason the West Court is sometimes also called ‘College Court’.

Prior to the establishment of Chelsea Hospital there had been little provision for the care of retired soldiers, aside from that of the Poor Hospitals (run by wealthy benefactors or monastic orders – before the Reformation). Some efforts to set up a military hospital had been made in the late 16th century, when the need became more and more apparent. Indeed, some local hospitals for the care of military men were set up earlier than Chelsea – the Earl of Leicester founded a hospital in Warwick (1571) for the care of those soldiers born in the county. Further efforts to form a national institution of this kind came in 1651 but the foundation stone for the Royal Hospital Chelsea was not laid until 1682 (before the establishment of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich in 1694). Funding came from a variety of sources, including private patrons, but a major source was the unclaimed prize-money, gained at sea. From 1847, funding for the Hospital came from funds voted on by Parliament.

Sir Christopher Wren not only designed the original Hospital but was a member of the original Board of Commissioners in 1682. He was responsible for many of the existing buildings at Chelsea, most notably the central set, made up of wings surrounding three courts – the Figure Court (central), or Great East Court (or Light Horse Court ) and the Great West Court (or College Court). Many service buildings were built at this time on both the west and the east sides of the Hospital (some demolished by Soane to make way for new buildings). In the intervening years, between Wren’s work and Soane’s, many other architects had a hand in the advancement of architecture at the Hospital, though none to the extent of those two men. Soane’s position as ‘Clerk of Works’ was occupied (amongst others) by John Vardy (1756-1765), Robert Adam (1765-1792) and Samuel Wyatt (1792-1807). Vanbrugh was also supposed to have been involved with extensions to Yarborough (then Walpole) House and supposedly built the Orangery on the west side of the Hospital, which remains in situ today.

Sir John Soane was clearly working within a prestigious architectural tradition. However, despite Soane’s eager spirit, he had to wait two years before the proposal for a major building project came along (in the shape of a new Infirmary) and was occupied mainly with repairs to existing buildings during this period. However, the design of the Infirmary was the first of many for Soane at Chelsea and the construction of the Infirmary (on a site not favoured by Soane) precipitated the need for the new Stables, Bakehouse and Artificers’ Yard as well as providing the opportunity for a re-working of the haphazard Clerk of Works’ House. The building works carried out by Soane on the east side of the Hospital – extensions to the Gardener’s House as offices for the Secretary, the new Secretary’s Offices and a new Guardhouse – were driven by the increasing number of staff (and pensioners) at the Hospital and the inadequacy of the original buildings to cope with these numbers. All of these buildings and their history are discussed in the scheme notes to the sections and in the notes to the drawings themselves.

Soane’s time at Chelsea and the development of his architectural style there was marked, particularly, by two episodes in his own life: the death of his wife, Eliza, and the criticism published by his son George, in an article in The Champion (10 and 24 September 1815), the latter being an alleged cause of the former.

Susan Palmer notes that Soane spent more and more time at Chelsea after his wife’s death, entertaining there as well. In his 1835 memoirs, Soane even announced an intention to retire to Chelsea (although he never did). Chelsea must have been very important to Soane, and he built up a miniature paradise around himself there – in a house that must, to some extent, have been a replacement for the retreat his country estate at Pitzhanger had provided (sold 1810). The gardens were a particular focus, as has been mentioned in the scheme note for section five. Indeed, from December 1815 (directly after Mrs Soane’s death) Soane employed the Hospital gardener, James Allen, to look after his own gardens as well – the results of which are evident in C.J. Richardson’s 1830s views of the Clerk of Works’ House (drawings 163 to 169). All of this care and devotion suggests the personal investment that Soane put into the Hospital as a whole.

Mrs Soane’s death was blamed, by Soane, on the critical article written by her son George in The Champion (September 1815). George described the Clerk of Works’ House as ‘a monster in the art of building, the Infirmary belonging to the same Hospital is not a jot behind it in absurdity… Heaviness and frivolity are there most delightfully blended the mass of the building is dull and cumbersome while all the ornaments are of the most light and trifling kind… Disproportion is the most striking feature in the works of this artist… a perversion of taste that is truly admirable.’ These were some of the words that Eliza declared her ‘death blows’ and they mark another fundamental point in the development of Soane’s architectural style at Chelsea. As Ptolemy Dean notes, after the 1815 article: ‘Suddenly, the buildings follow Wren’s proportion and style much more closely’ (p.74). Although some buildings constructed post-1815 still use the yellow stock brick of Soane’s earlier designs (the new Guardhouse and Gardener’s House), they follow Wren’s proportions and his stylistic use of quoining much more closely. The later buildings (the new Secretary’s Offices and the Surgeon’s House particularly) are made in red brick with stone quoining at the corners (as with Wren’s main Hospital buildings). This may, in the case of the Secretary’s Offices, be because the new building was situated directly between two Wren pavilions and on the east side of the Hospital and Soane did not have the yellow brick precedent of the Yarborough House conversion to follow.

In the 1830s, Soane’s architectural output at Chelsea was limited to a smoking room for the pensioners and a small Doric garden structure, as well as repair work. Possibly, this decrease in production may have been a result of the Board of Commissioners’ growing lack of faith, post Champion article, in Soane’s abilities (although it may also have been that Soane’s previous work had adequately met the needs of the Hospital for the time). When Soane died in January 1837, no one else was appointed to the post of Clerk of Works and the post was abolished a matter of months later. It seems evident that the Hospital no longer had the same need of an architect as it had done.

It is clear, however, that it was never Soane’s intention to stray too far from Wren’s original style. For example, Soane wrote of an early Infirmary design that: ‘The building is proposed to be in the same simple and unadorned style as the rest of the Hospital, so as to make a part of one great whole’ (Papers, presented to the House of Commons, p.20). Indeed, the Infirmary and new Stables were designed to have understated exteriors so they did not visually compete with the Wren buildings opposite them (the later buildings were similarly modest in appearance). Soane also deliberately takes up and uses Wren motifs in his own buildings. Small examples of this can be found in the brackets above the central doors of the Secretary’s Offices and the Surgeon’s House. The very same strigilated bracket with triangular ‘teeth’ underneath it can be found on side doorways to Wren’s main building and (in a slightly different form) on the triglyphs of Wren’s main portico and cornice.
Ptolemy Dean sums up Soane’s substantial contribution to the architecture of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, as ‘an exemplar of the kind of courteous background architecture that developed historic precedent without merely copying it’ (p.77). Although Soane’s contemporaries and the Chelsea Board of Commissioners may have thought otherwise, Soane certainly never sought to rival his great predecessor, merely to complement him.

Further research on Soane’s designs at Royal Chelsea Hospital can be undertaken at The National Archives, which holds drawings for the various schemes (Works 31/220-254) and the minutes and other papers of the Chelsea Board of Commissioners are in the National Archives collection. Drawings for the Stables, Infirmary and two for the Clerk of Works' House can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum drawings collection. These are catalogued in P. Du Prey, Sir John Soane, 1985, in a series of ‘Catalogues of Architectural Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, catalogue 449-452. There are also some records within the Chelsea Hospital archives and 63 drawings in the Soane Museum Archive (Private Correspondence IX.J.1-63), 15 of which are presently unidentified.

Soane was assisted at Chelsea by various pupils (see bellow) and had his own Labourer in Trust there, Richard Hall (c. 1774-1853 (retired from Chelsea 1845)). A full record of the occupants of the main official positions at Chelsea Hospital itself can be found in C.G.T. Dean's The Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Pupil - Dates
H. Burges (pupil 1817-1820)
J. Buxton (1785-1831, pupil 1809-1814)
R.D. Chantrell (1793-1872, pupil 1807-1814)
Edward Foxhall (1793-1802, pupil 1812-1821)
Thomas Lee (1794-1834, Trial Improver July-November 1810)
A.P. Mee (1802-1868, pupil 1818-1823)
Charles Edward Papendick (1801-1835, pupil 1818-1824)

Literature
Papers, presented to the House of Commons, relating to the Building of a New Infirmary, and the Leasing of Ground at Chelsea Hospital (ordered by the House of Commons) to be Printed, 20th April 1809; G. Soane, An article in The Champion, 10 and 24 September 1815; Royal Hospital Chelsea: Board Minutes and Papers, January 1816-September 1818 (The National Archives WO 250/377); Royal Hospital Chelsea: Board Minutes and Papers, November 1818-April 1820 (The National Archives WO 250/378); Royal Hospital Chelsea: Board Minutes and Papers, May 1820-June 1821 (The National Archives WO 250/379; W. Godfrey (ed.), Survey of London: volume 2: Chelsea, part 1, 1909; A. T. Bolton, The Works of Sir John Soane, 1924; C.G.T. Dean, The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, 1950; David Ascoli, A Village in Chelsea, an informal account of the Royal Hospital, 1974; M. Richardson, 'Soane in Chelsea', pp. 45-51, The Chelsea Society Report, 1992; D. Yeomans, The Trussed Roof, its history and development, 1992; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane Architect, 1996; S. Palmer, 'Sir John Soane's Garden at the Royal Hospital Chelsea', The London Gardener, 2003-2004, volume 9, pp. 11-21; P. Dean, 'The Royal Hospital Chelsea I- Pre-1815' and 'The Royal Hospital Chelsea II - life after 1815' in Sir John Soane and London, 2006; H. Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840, 4th ed., 2008

Matilda Burn, 2010
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