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Office of Works


Soane and the Office of Works

The Office of Works was first established in the English Royal Household in 1378 to superintend the building of the King's castles and residences. In 1782 it was reformed and reconstituted under the direction of the Lord Chamberlain's Office and given a wider remit that took in a variety of public buildings including the Tower of London, the British Museum, the General Post Office and prisons at Marshalsea, Fleet, Pentonville and elsewhere. The first person to hold the new joint role of Surveyor-General and Comptroller of the Works was Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). It was under Chambers - and thanks to the influence of Prime Minister William Pitt - that John Soane was given his first public appointment as Clerk of Works at St James's, Whitehall and Westminster in October 1790. The post gave him a fixed salary of £300 a year.

Soane's first stint at the Office of Works was not entirely successful. As his private practice grew, his commitment to the Office of Works decreased. Things came to a head in December 1793. After Chambers requested that Soane come to his office to receive instructions, 'a message was returned that you were at home if I [Chambers] had anything to say' (J. M. Crook and M. H. Port (eds), The History of the King's Works: Vol. VI: 1782-1851, p. 43). Several weeks later Chambers complained that 'the same convenience still remains unremedied, the consequences of which are great delays and uncertainties in all places belonging to his Clerkship' (King's Works, p. 44). Soane claimed that his comments on the repair of Winchester Palace, the Fleet Prison and Chambers' own Somerset House had rendered him 'particularly obnoxious' to the Surveyor-General. His real gripe, though, was the promotion from Resident Clerk to Examiner of Charles Alexander Craig (1753-1833), who Soane thought was under-qualified for the position ('a person who...has been brought up to measuring and accounts, is now a District Surveyor') (King's Works, p. 44). Chambers was unsympathetic, responding sarcastically that '[I] am sorry to hear from you that his great inferiority and my violent resentment prevent, and will prevent, your attendance at this Office' (King's Works, p. 44). In February 1794, Soane resigned. Probably, he also wished to make himself available for another project of which he had heard rumours: the rebuilding of the House of Lords.

After the death of Chambers in 1796, James Wyatt (1746-1813) took over as Surveyor-General. His tenure was disastrous and the occasion of Wyatt's death afforded the government the opportunity to reassess the structure and activities of the Office of Works and to appoint new officers. An act 'for the better regulation of the conduct of the business of the office of works and expedition thereof' was passed in July 1814 (King's Works, p. 101). The Surveyor-General was to be assisted by three 'architects attached to the Office of Works' whose responsibility would be to help in 'preparing plans, estimates, working drawings and reports, and also in making surveys, inspecting workmen, and superintending the execution of contracts' (King's Works, p. 101). The attached architects would be permitted to continue their private practices. The act also gave the Treasury full power to oversee the conduct of business and regulate the expenditure of the Office of Works.

The new Surveyor-General, Benjamin Charles Stephenson (c.1766-1839), was not an architect, but his was a largely administrative role. As for the attached architects, Lord Liverpool reported in January 1814 that 'the Prince Regent is naturally desirous of employing his own architect Mr Nash (1752-1835)...and it has been settled to add Mr Soane and Mr Smirke (1780-1867) as two of the architects of the more established character in the country' (King's Works, p. 109). Each was given responsibility for a different 'district'; Nash's included St. James's Palace, Carlton House, Kensington Palace, Green Park and Hyde Park; Smirke's contained Windsor Castle, Greenwich Park, Somerset House, the Tower of London, the Mint, the King's Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet Prisons and the British Museum; and Soane was given the areas of Whitehall and Westminster, including Buckingham House, the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court Palace and Bushy Park.

As with Nash and Smirke, Soane received an annual salary of £500 plus an additional commission of three per cent. The attached architects were expected 'at all times to attend the Surveyor General whenever he may require their assistance in making drawings, plans and estimates, in the settlement of prices for building materials and workmanship, in making surveys; and on all occasions when their professional abilities are required, to assist the Surveyor General in the discharge of his duty' (King's Works, p. 110).

Over the next 17 years Soane completed a number of projects for the Office of Works. Beginning with surveys and reports on Buckingham House, Hampton Court, Harcourt House and 16 Cavendish Square, his early work also included alterations to 7 Old Palace Yard, William Kent's Treasury and Westminster Hall. The accession to the throne of George IV in 1820 gave the Works a new impetus. In Soane's jurisdiction this equated to substantial alterations to the House of Lords and the Law Courts and the building of the Insolvent Debtors' Court at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Alterations were also made to Nos 10-12 Downing Street and the Old Foreign Office and Soane was given the task of re-facing and re-roofing the Banqueting House as well. Two complete commissions were also undertaken: the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices in 1823 and the new State Paper Office in 1828.

Throughout the 1820s, however, there was growing criticism of the Office of Works from Parliament and the press owing chiefly to its increasing expenditure. In 1828, therefore, a Special Committee was formed to conduct an inquiry into the Works. All three attached architects, as well as Stephenson and other officials, came under scrutiny, with Soane being pressed to explain the process behind the building of the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. This building was derided by many observers as being too low, asymmetrical and insufficiently grand relative to its function. The consequence of the 1828 Report was that the Treasury's control tightened. But the Works' long term situation was not improved, and the death of George IV in June 1830 signalled 'the beginning of the end of an era in the King's Works' (King's Works, p. 174). A separate assessment in 1831 found fault with the cost, structure and output of the Office. The attached architects came in for especially damning criticism, being condemned as 'expensive and worse than useless, as they prevent competition and thereby occasion expensive as well as hideous buildings' (George Agar Ellis, quoted in King's Works, p. 181). On 5 April 1832 the employment of the attached architects - including Soane - was terminated and the Office of Works became a de facto sub-department of the Office of Woods and Forests.

Tom Drysdale, October 2013


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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.

Browse (via the vertical menu to the left) and search results for Drawings include a mixture of Concise catalogue records – drawn from an outline list of the collection – and fuller records where drawings have been catalogued in more detail (an ongoing process).  

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