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London: 10-12 Downing Street: designs for alterations, 1825 (22)


The architectural history of Downing Street, a complex of connected and heavily modified old buildings, is further complicated by the numbering of the houses which has changed several times in the past 300 years. For clarity, this introduction will use the numbering of the houses as it was in 1825 unless otherwise stated. I am very grateful to Alan Robson of Feilden+Mawson architects for showing me around and sharing his knowledge of the houses pre- and post-Soane.

In 1825, Soane - as attached architect to the Office of Works with responsibility for Westminster and Whitehall - was asked to make alterations to Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street. His designs for No. 10, completed in 1826, consisted of a new State Dining Room and ante-room. In the same year he added a top-lit 'eating room' and a new staircase to the neighbouring house, No. 11, and made designs for merging that house with No. 12. Despite subsequent alterations Soane's rooms largely survive in their original state and continue to be used by the current government.

Downing Street was developed by Sir George Downing (1623-1684), a diplomat and financial reformer who speculatively built the famous terrace of houses on the north side of the street in 1682-3. No. 10 and the much larger house behind were joined and substantially rebuilt by William Kent (c.1685-1748) from 1732 to 1735. It was at this time that the house was offered by King George II to Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) who accepted on the condition that the house would be passed to his successors in the Office of First Lord of the Treasury. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that the practice of the First Lord of the Treasury (a position now invariably held by the Prime Minister) occupying No. 10 became established and when Soane was approached in 1824 it was by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick John Robinson (1782-1859), who had been living there since February 1823.

Robinson wished to reflect the current period of national prosperity with suitable improvements to the official house (A. Seldon, op. cit., p. 20). Soane obliged by designing a new State Dining Room with an ante-room for the first floor in part of the building added by Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788) in 1781-3 and formerly used for bedrooms (drawings 1-4). Matters were complicated by two existing features. The first - the water closet and service corridor shown in drawing 5 - forced Soane to create an irregularly-shaped room with an off-centre ceiling similar to the breakfast room of No. 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the ante-room, the only suitable position for the chimneypiece was beneath an existing window. Soane's remedy to this problem was to direct the flues either side of the window, which caused some practical problems as the heat of the fire reportedly caused the elements holding the window in place to deform and the glass to fall out (Downing Street website) (drawings 6-11).

The new rooms combined practicality and domesticity with a fitting sense of grandeur. The walls were lined with oak panels and the rooms linked with double paired doors. In the dining room, the floor was bordered with mahogany but the showpiece was the richly-decorated starfish ceiling (drawing 14). This feature had been chosen personally by Robinson after Soane had presented him with a choice of four different ceiling designs in July 1825 (drawing 12). The drama of the room was increased by the difference in height between the ante-room and the dining room (drawing 13), where 'the ceiling rose up like a great release of air after the sequence of low rooms throughout the rest of the house' (P. Dean, op. cit., 2006, p. 116).

The work at Nos 11 and 12 occurred at roughly the same time as that at No. 10. In 1812 the occupant of No. 11 (drawing 15), Daniel Dulany (?-1824), had obtained a 20-year extension to the reversionary Crown lease that had been due to expire in 1820. Dulany died in 1824 and the lease subsequently passed to the Crown. The neighbouring No. 12 (drawing 16) had been purchased by the Treasury in 1805 with the intention of combining it with No. 13 to become the Home Office. By coincidence, Soane had previously carried out work at No. 12 for an earlier resident, John Eliot, between 1797 and 1805. In 1824 it was occupied by Stephen R. Lushington (1776-1868), then joint Secretary to the Treasury. Lushington asked Soane in August of that year to provide designs for a new eating room at the back of No. 11, which was to be merged with No. 12. Soane's plans also included a new top-lit staircase and lobby, as well as alterations to the large room at the rear of No. 12 and to the cellars underneath the new extension (drawings 17-22).

The new dining room at No. 11 was to be built in a space between the back of that house and No. 10, meaning that the room would have to be lit from above. Soane designed a canopy-domed ceiling with narrow skylights on two sides. The ceiling closely resembles design 'No. 3' on Soane's 'multiple choice' drawing (12) and has a strong similarity to the ceiling of his breakfast room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields. Again, the walls of the new room were oak-panelled and the ceiling decorated - in this case with a combination of Greek fret, roll mouldings, corrugation and 'twisted ribbon' motifs, with winged staffs (caducei), horns of plenty and globes in the four corners. A painted plaster model of the ceiling can be found in the Soane Museum (see J. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., 1969, p. 35).

Soane's rooms at 10 and 11 Downing Street remain largely intact despite alterations to the houses in the intervening years. In the 1930s the oak panelling of the No. 10 ante-room was painted white. No. 11 was subject to more extensive alterations; John Phipps (c.1796-1868) removed the dining room fireplace and Soane's staircase and inserted a new one in the ante-room in 1846-7. In 1937 the ante-room was further altered to become a servery. As part of a large-scale renovation project between 1959 and 1963, however, Raymond Erith restored the dining room in sympathy with the original, replacing the Phipps fireplace with one designed in a Soanean style, reusing Soane's windows in a westward extension of the room (two cast-iron columns from Soane’s Treasury were also recycled) and creating a new staircase also based on Soane's work. The State Dining Room and ante-room in No. 10 required less repair but the roof and floor structures were reinforced, the oak panelling removed, stripped and returned, a new cornice was added to the ante-room and the damaged chimneypiece in the dining room was replaced with a replica.

The drawings for Soane's work at Nos 10-12 Downing Street mostly consist of surveys and designs for alterations. They provide not only evidence of work that is now lost, but also show Soane working within London town houses of pre-defined shape and size and yet still managing to create spaces befitting grand State occasions (P. Dean, op. cit., p. 121). In addition to these 22 drawings the Soane Museum Archive also has correspondence, accounts and estimates relating to Soane's work at Downing Street. Records relating to the Office of Works are kept at The National Archives in Kew. Another useful resource is the Downing Street website, which features 360 degree virtual tours of the State rooms, including Soane's State Dining Room and the ante-room in No. 10 (https://www.gov.uk/government/history/10-downing-street).

M. H. Cox and P. Norman (eds), Survey of London: Vol. XVI, The Parish of St Margaret Westminster - Part III, 1931; R. J. Minney, No 10 Downing Street: A House in History, 1963; J. Wilton-Ely, 'The architectural models of Sir John Soane: a catalogue', Architectural History, XII, 1969; J. M. Crook and M. H. Port (eds), The History of the King's Works: Vol. VI: 1782-1851, 1973; H. M. Colvin, J. M. Crook, K. Downes and J. Newman (eds), The History of the King's Works: Vol. V: 1660-1782, 1976; L. Archer, Raymond Erith, Architect, 1985; L. Geddes-Brown, 'Traditional values...', The Sunday Times, 7 August 1988; J. Charlton, No 10 Downing Street, 1990; P. Bennett and A. Hudson, 11 Downing Street, 1990; R. Hewlings, '11 Downing Street: John Soane's work for John Eliot', Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, XXXIX, 1995; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1996; R. Garnier, 'Downing Square in the 1770s and 1780s', Georgian Group Journal, IX, 1999; A. Seldon, 10 Downing Street: The Illustrated History, 1999; S. C. Hurst, The Reconstruction of Downing Street and the Old Treasury, 1960-64, unpublished MSc thesis, 1999/2004; S. Bradley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster, 2003; P. Dean, Sir John Soane and London, 2006.

Tom Drysdale, August 2013



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Contents of London: 10-12 Downing Street: designs for alterations, 1825 (22)