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London: Palace of Westminster: The New Law Courts, surveys and designs, 1820-32 (507)


Introductory Note:-

"After all the chilling blasts which the blistering tongue of malice has uttered in dispraise of these Buildings, I shall be proud to have it engraved on my tomb, - ‘Here lies the man who designed and directed the construction of the New Law Courts at Westminster."
John Soane, A Brief Statement of Proceedings (1828), p. 16

The rebuilding of the Law Courts at Westminster was the last great example of public architecture within Soane’s career. On a severely restricted site to the north of Westminster Hall, he contrived to accommodate seven separate Courtrooms with accommodation for their officials. The building as a whole demonstrated Soane’s mastery of complex planning and made virtuosic use of lighting by a series of lanterns and skylights. These answered the practical necessity created by limited area available and provided the building’s interiors with a dramatic leitmotif. The subsequent revisions to the plan, forced upon Soane by a Select Committee of the House of Commons from March–May 1824, stimulated a succession of alternative designs which served to affirm Soane’s competence as an architect, and the integrity of his own powers of invention. As later recorded in his Designs for Public and Private Buildings (1828) Soane clearly felt the imposed alterations denigrated his professional reputation.

The commission to rebuild the ancient Courts at Westminster, for centuries based in and around Westminster Hall was awarded to Soane on 12 July 1820. In such a complex commission, which involved the separate officers and judges of the Courts, Soane acted as the Attached Architect to the Office of Works, with responsibility for the Palace of Westminster. As a public building, his proposals were ultimately agreed by the Treasury, with expenses for the project subject to the scrutiny and supporting votes of the House of Commons. Prior to commencing work, the Law Courts were housed in a piecemeal series of chambers and ranges to the north of the Hall, facing New Palace Yard. The Hall itself had long contained at its southern end the Courts of Chancery and King’s Bench, designed by William Kent. At the southern end of the site stood the incomplete Stone Building; the fragment of an earlier attempt to pull into architectural unity the disparate appearance of the buildings on this site. Any new proposal would have to continence realising The Stone Building’s façade along the site’s western perimeter and be so arranged as to accommodate the buttresses of Westminster Hall.

The original specification only stipulated the relocation of the two Courts within Westminster Hall. However, by October 1820 it appears that a more wholesale reconstruction was envisaged. Soane’s original intentions, as he later recalled, was to dovetail into my Design as many parts of the old Buildings as were capable of alteration and useful repair. This was not accounted as a defence of antiquarian sentiment, which was already attached to the Palace of Westminster site, but of economy in public expenditure. Soane’s first solution was approved by the Treasury on 27 July 1821, whereupon it was agreed that the north façade of the Law Courts should be of a single style, in deference to The Stone Building, rather than to Westminster Hall. George IV approved Soane’s intentions on 28 February the following year, and on 22 June 1822 the Treasury pressed for reconstruction to commence. Clearance of the southern half of the site began in September 1822, with the new building phased to be erected from south to north, leaving the buildings on the latter half of the site standing until May 1823. First to be built were the Chancery Courts, those presided over by the Lord Chancellor. Their solution of two-tiered core walls, disposed around intermittent light wells and ‘gridiron’ rhythm necessitated by the existing buttresses, set the pattern for the complex. The site is bound together by taut circulation corridors, which keyed the new buildings into The Stone Building’s façade where designated entrances for Court officials and judges were located. Access for the public was provided by breaking a series of arches through the west wall of the Hall, which gave direct access to most of the Courts. It should be noted that the design was still subject to revision and change immediately prior to construction beginning, and the internal appearance was often confirmed only after their structural core was completed.

The difficulties implicit in the Law Court’s design were mirrored in the many interested parties with which Soane had to work, and clarity as to whom Soane was ultimately accountable to may at times appear vague. As construction progressed into 1823, on 15 March a meeting on site confirmed the appearance of the Law Court’s north façade. Amongst the attendees was J.C. Herries, the Treasury’s Financial Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, F. J. Robinson and Sir Charles Long. The latter was a Member of Parliament with a longstanding interest in the Arts, and a connoisseur influential in royal circles. It was Long’s suggestion that the north façade’s corners should be curved, so as to allow for greater visibility of Westminster Hall. Building work could now begin on the northern half of the site, containing the Common Law courts. However, even during the course of construction, from September 1823-March 1824, this design was revised, and eventually it incorporated a giant Corinthian order to give the self-effacing corners visual strength.

All may have proceeded well were it not for a Commons’ debate of 1 March 1824, when the £30,000 voted for the next phase of building work was challenged by the vociferous Henry Bankes M.P., amongst others. The detractors’ complaint was against the Palladian idiom of the northern façade, set as it was in juxtaposition with Westminster Hall. The wider question of accountable public expenditure therefore served to question the architectural aesthetic preferences of the day, for which Soane would unfairly be held accountable. On 23 March the Commons voted for a Select Committee to be set up to enquire into the Law Courts, with Bankes acting as chairman. It comprised an admixture of M.P.s who in other spheres were promoters of the Arts and dilettantes. Work on the building was suspended and Soane was asked to appear before the Committee on 25 March.

In vain, Soane strove to defend his design against the Committee’s criticisms. Aside from the question of style, the Committee wished the Law Court’s northern extent to be moved back behind Westminster Hall’s north façade. Soane argued that the loss of accommodation could not be reincorporated within the Law Courts, and argued unsuccessfully that the façade, as part built, could easily be Gothicised. The Committee published its damning report on 14 May, and demolition of the Law Court’s north façade began on 24 June. As rebuilt, the design reflects the Committee’s wishes, and pushed the Law Court’s exterior back as far as feasibly possible to the north wall of the Court of King’s Bench. The screening Gothic façade was a resigned incorporation of the Committee’s suggestions, and never garnered praise for the latter’s exertions.

Furnishing of the Court Rooms continued through 1825, with the opening of the Court of King’s Bench on 31 January 1826 effectively marking the end of the building campaign. However, Soane’s professional chagrin at his treatment by the Select Committee ran deep, and he repeatedly wrestled with alternative solutions to the north façade debacle. There was little hope of any of these retroactive designs being built, and they offer a curiously extensive codicil to the Law Courts project as a whole. Soane published vindications of his design in his Brief Statement of the Proceedings respecting the New Law Courts and his Designs for Public of Private Buildings. Written with bitter hindsight, they are far from impartial accounts of the course of events.

Already compromised, the radical legal reforms of the1830s stimulated such an increase for accommodation that the Law Courts were rapidly found to be insufficient. The buildings survived the 1834 fire which swept through the heart of the Palace of Westminster, with only the southernmost range suffering damage. In an almost perverse repetition of earlier events, Charles Barry proposed refacing the entire complex to integrate it into his own design for the New Palace of Westminster; an idea never adopted. The Law Courts survived until 1882, with the completion of George Edmund Street’s successor complex on the Strand. They were subsequently demolished the following year, with little regard paid to their passing.

General Note on Catagorisation:-

The survey drawings of the buildings of the Old Law Courts have, for ease of consultation, here been divided into four distinct ranges. While this does not reflect historic or established practices when discussing this site, it is intended to serve as a means of rationalising the complexities inherent in the site and, as far as is practicable, follows the divisions of jurisdiction across the site between the respective Courts. Drawing of the respective Courts proper within each range appear with drawings which include surveys of adjacent offices. Drawings which include details of Courts have been categorised under the respective Court. Those drawings which extend across separate ranges have been included in the range which is given greatest coverage. Surveys which cover all, or a significant portion, of the entire site are entered under a separate category.

The designs for the New Law Courts are initially divided into two design campaigns; the latter (which was commenced with) is then subdivided into three topographical parts. The southern, central and northern ranges are, as far as possible, arranged in chronological order, with the respective Courts within each range separately treated. Ancillary accommodation and circulation spaces are classed under the respective Court to which it appertained. Where possible, drawings relating to designs and revisions of the component ranges and Courts are considered first (where they survive) followed by any drawings which record the completed Courts' as realised at the end of the building campaign. However, plans for the entire site, or which appear not to relate specifically to the component ranges, are catalogued separately.

The revisions in light of the Select Committee's interventions of March-May 1824 are arranged in chronological order, prioritising the successive revisions and the development of architectural solutions which led to the amended façade. Subsequent unexecuted designs are placed in chronological order under 'Retroactive designs', grouped in order to demonstrate the evolution of the different solutions Soane still wrestled with. The latter, as far as possible, have been catalogued as distinct from the original drawings for the New Law Courts, though with the repeated reappearance and development of earlier ideas, there is an inevitable degree of overlap.

Summerson, J. Architectural Biographies: IV: Sir John Soane, 1753-1837, (1952); Williams, O. The Topography of the Old House of Commons (1953); Stroud, D. The Architecture of Sir John Soane (1961); Colvin H.M. 'Views of the Old Palace of Westminster', Architectural History vol. 9 (1966) pp. 23-184; Colvin H.M. (ed.). The History of the King’s Works: Volume VI, 1782-1851 (1973); Colvin, H.M. (ed.). The History of the King's Works: Volume V, 1660-1782 (1976); Colvin, H.M. (ed.). The History of the King's Works: Volume IV, 1485-1660 (1982); Mellinghoff, G.-T., Summerson, J. & Watkin, D. Architectural Monographs: John Soane (1983); Brownlee, D. The Law Courts: The Architecture of George Edmund Street (1984) pp. 47-52; Du Prey, P. de la Ruffinière. Catalogue of Architectural Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum: Sir John Soane, (1985); Worsley, G. Architectural Drawings of the Regency Period, 1790-1837 (1991); Wedgwood, A. ‘Soane’s Law Courts at Westminster’, Architectural Association Files vol. 24 (Autumn 1992) pp. 31-40; Jackson, A. ‘The Façade of Sir John Soane’s Museum: A Study in Contextualism’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol. 51, no. 4 (December 1992) pp. 417-492; Willmert, T. ‘Heating Methods and Their Impact on Soane’s Work: Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Dulwich Picture Gallery’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol. 52 no. 1 (March 1993) pp. 26-58; Sawyer, S. ‘The Apotheosis of George IV: Sir John Soane’s Symbolic Westminster’, Architectural History vol. 39 (1996) pp. 54-76; Stroud, D. Sir John Soane, Architect (1996); Watkin, D. Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (1996); Pevsner, N. & Cherry, B. The Buildings of England: London 4: North (1998); Sawyer, S. 'Soane at Westminster: Civil, Architectural and National Identity, 1789-1824' (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1999); Sawyer, S. ‘The Law Courts’, in R. Stevens & M. Richardson (eds.). John Soane Architect: Master of Space and Light (1999) pp. 268-275; Graham, C. Ordering Law: The Architectural and Social History of the English Law Court to 1914 (2003); Cooke, R. 'The Chancery Connection’ in A. Holdsworth (ed.). A Portrait of Lincoln’s Inn (2007) pp. 46-58; Fooks, R. & Wallington, R. 'The Buildings: Long History and Picturesque Variety’ in A. Holdsworth (ed.). A Portrait of Lincoln’s Inn (2007) pp. 24-45; Colvin, H.M. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1837 (2008); Saint, A. (ed.). The Survey of London: Volume XLVI; South and East Clerkenwell (2008); Robinson, J.M. James Wyatt: Architect to George III (2011); Salmon, F. 'Public Commissions', in S. Weber (ed.). William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain (2013) pp. 314-363; White, R. ‘Kent and the Gothic’, in S. Weber (ed.). William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain (2013) pp. 247-269

James Jago, 2018

With thanks to Neil Bingham for peer reviewing this catalogue, and to Sean Sawyer for sharing and discussing his research on Soane’s New Law Courts. This catalogue was generously funded by The Worshipful Company of Mercers and The Pilgrim Trust.



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation. This catalogue of Soane’s designs for the New Law Courts was generously funded by The Worshipful Company of Mercers and The Pilgrim Trust.

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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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Contents of London: Palace of Westminster: The New Law Courts, surveys and designs, 1820-32 (507)