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Designs for the Whole Site, 1821-29 (15)


Design Note:-
The concreted activity towards the close of 1821 saw the genesis of a more wholesale treatment of the New Law Courts. The Day Books record that for December, George Bailey was the allotted draughtsman who prepared new drawings, assisted by Charles Papendiek in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Both pupils continued working on this proposal throughout January 1822, assisted by Arthur Mee. This is supplemented by the records in Soane’s Notebooks which record his direct involvement in working on related plans (SM Notebook 168, 29-31 December 1821; SM Notebook 169, 1-6 January 1822). The process of revision which produced this design ran in tandem with the final drawings for the proposal it superseded. It should be borne in mind that such chronological overlaps are by no means uncommon, especially with the drawings for variant and alternative proposals produced after March 1824. The most conspicuous feature marking out this series of related drawings is the wholesale reconstruction of existing buildings which the first scheme retained. In particular this concerned the Courts of Exchequer and Common Pleas. The first evidence of this rationalising approach appears on SM 53/1/11, superimposed on a survey drawing, which has subsequently been dated to 1822. Here the Exchequer range facing New Palace Yard is replaced by a five-bay block, three bays deep, with a recessed linking range to the north-west corner of Westminster Hall. Notably, this new block projects as far as the towers of Westminster Hall. Regardless of the loss of floor area this would entail, that no internal walls are indicated suggests this design grew from dissatisfaction with the external appearance of the previous scheme.

The internal disposition is clarified by SM 53/1/20, which as the inscription in Soane’s hand makes clear, was prepared to illustrate an estimate submitted to the Treasury lords on 13 December 1821. Here, possibly in Bailey’s hand, the old Exchequer range (shown in grey pen) is entirely replaced by a spacious, near-square Courtroom for the King’s Bench. It has a generous lobby giving access to Westminster Hall, ancillary accommodation to the west, and circulation and entrances to the north and south. Such provisions were not only practical, but would have screened the Courtroom itself from the urban noise of late-Georgian Westminster. Here also, only the west and north walls of Kent’s Common Pleas’ court are retained. The remainder is likewise to be reconstructed, allowing the Public Corridor to run for almost the entire length of Westminster Hall. The designation of the Courts and their offices this is plan proposes is recorded in SM 53/1/21.

Noticeably, the columnar or pier articulation of the larger Courtrooms is abandoned, being suggested only for the King’s Bench lobby and the Lord Chancellor’s Robing Room. The earlier interest in semi-circular alcoves also reappears, noticeably in the proposed northern flanking range of The Stone Building. Notable also is an attempt to consolidate the scattered lightwells of earlier proposals into a single large well directly to the west of the Court of Commons Pleas. In terms of plan, the Chancery courts at the site’s southern had reached their final form, with the exception of the linking corridor running parallel to The Stone Building’s eastern range. The exterior perspective accompanying this plan (SM 53/8/4) advances upon the self-effacing character of the previous scheme by consolidating the site’s northern façade as an entrance and separate architectural presence to the entrances on St Margaret’s Street. The proposal assimilates the Palladian idiom of The Stone Building, replicating its rhythms onto a three-floored cuboidal block, with three pseudo-Serlianas above three rusticated ground-floor arches.

A variant proposal to this solution is shown in SM 53/1/22 and SM 53/8/6. It is unclear exactly when this variant was first devised, but it was first shown on 5 March 1823. The proposed King’s Bench range has four bays facing St Margaret’s Street. In a telling feature that would return to vex this façade’s design, its corners now slightly project to endow it with a greater sense of architectural variety and firmitas. The entrance arches from New Palace Yard now rise through two storeys, and in accompanying plan, the Vice Chancellor’s Retiring Room is treated as though a great exedrae to the adjacent Courtroom.

However, it was a variant elevation accompanying the previous plan which won the support of Soane’s clients (SM 53/8/7). As annotated in Soane’s hand, it records the resulting deliberations of a meeting of 15 March 1823, when Sir Charles Long stated his preference to preserve the sightlines of Westminster Hall. A solution was found in making the corners of the north façade round (i.e. quadrant in plan) which would be adopted by all subsequent elevations and plans, and carried through into execution until March 1824. A compound sheet (SM 53/1/29) dated 3 September 1823 records the evolution of the design by this date. The imposing lobby lead to the Court of King’s Bench has here been radically reduced in scale in order to better accommodate the Bail Court; here shown with a variant arrangement of ancillary spaces and the adjacent lightwell. The position of the linking range to Westminster Hall is also shown as either flush or recessed with the latter’s north façade; a curiously prognostic feature. However, the loss of an imposing entrance from Westminster Hall was compensated in the masterful planning of the King’s Bench entrance within The Stone Building’s northern pavilion tower. Here the earlier experiments with exedrae are unified to the practicalities of the constricted circulation routes, with the shallow curve masking the change in alignments at this part of the design. As with SM 37/3/35, this plan shows overlays of the previous accommodation of the Courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Chancery to demonstrate the consistency of space and accommodation within the overall design.

The remaining drawings demonstrate the variants attempted with the Law Courts’ northern façade. SM 53/1/25 represents an intermediary solution to compensate for the visual slightness of the adopted curved corners. They project slightly from the main, but the solution appears not to have been wholly satisfactory. The uncompleted solution of curved corners clasped between a Corinthian giant order is shown on SM 53/1/27. The plan of the façade, as realised following the House of Commons Select Committee’s intervention, is recorded on SM 53/1/26; one a sequence of large-scale plans of the entire site which are executed to an exceptionally meticulous standard, clearly being the work of accomplished draughtsman. Their visual presence makes the absence of dated inscriptions and distinctive traits regrettably make them difficult to associate with any one hand.



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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Contents of Designs for the Whole Site, 1821-29 (15)