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Clerk of Works' House, 1807-1833 (35)

As the Clerk of Works to Chelsea Hospital, part of Soane’s annual salary (which did not amount to much) was the use of the Clerk of Works’ House. At the time of Soane’s appointment to the post, the Clerk of Works’ House was a rather small and somewhat haphazard building, the design of which (or part of the design) some have attributed to Vanbrugh. Ptolemy Dean ('The Royal Hospital Chelsea I- Pre-1815', pp.63-72, in Sir John Soane and London, 2006, p.68) refers to correspondence between Vanbrugh and Walpole on the subject of the house. Soane made some minor alterations in 1807 (drawing 145) and in fact lent a large part of the house to his son, John, in 1811 – keeping a sitting room, office and chamber for himself, as well as a stable and coach house. However, it was not until the Infirmary had been completed and the new Stables begun that enough space and time was freed up for Soane to make the more extensive alterations he considered necessary, which he did in 1814. Soane presented an estimate of £740 which was approved on 22 September 1814. The plans were approved on 31 March 1815 and the work began in April 1815. At this point, as Margaret Richardson ('Soane in Chelsea', pp.45-51, The Chelsea Society Report, 1992, p.48) says, Soane transformed the pre-existing building into ‘a symmetrical two-storey villa of distinction and progressiveness’ (perhaps most evident in the plans, drawings 156 and 157).

By 1810 Soane had sold his country estate at Ealing, Pitzhanger Manor. Chelsea, therefore, was well positioned as a convenient replacement. The 1814 improvements made to the Chelsea house must have been high on Soane’s own agenda. After the death of Soane’s wife in 1815, the architect spent rather more time at Chelsea – some have suggested because he couldn’t bear the associations of his Lincoln’s Inn Fields house. Susan Palmer’s article (‘Sir John Soane's garden at the Royal Hospital Chelsea’, pp.11-20, in The London Gardener, Vol 9, 2003-4, p.20) draws attention to the focus placed on the garden surrounding the completed house, creating a haven and antithesis to London life. He employed the hospital gardener to care for the Clerk of Works’ garden, which included climbing plants, crimson roses and a white climbing flower (which Palmer suggests may be jasmine). Palmer also notes that the walls surrounding Soane’s garden were kept low ‘to maximise the light and air reaching the Infirmary’. Drawings 163 to 169 clearly show all this.

There is one survey drawing relating to the Clerk of Works' Housee in the SM Archive - an elevation with a detail of a window on the verso (Priv.Corr.IX.J.26).

The post of Clerk of Works to Chelsea Hospital was abolished after Soane’s death in 1837. For a short time the hospital Chaplain occupied the house but it was demolished in 1856.
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