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London: Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, Whitehall & Downing Street: designs for new offices and scheme for the improvement of Downing Street, 1823-33 (284)


The Board of Trade was first established in 1621 as a temporary committee charged with investigating and remedying the decline in trade under King James I. Revived in 1784, its main function during the early nineteenth century was to advise the Crown on matters relating to the economic activity of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. The Privy Council is an advisory body and one of the oldest constituent parts of the government of the United Kingdom. The rise of the Cabinet system of government in the eighteenth century meant that the Privy Council lost much of its power. One of the functions that the Council retained, however, was the provision of a final Court of Appeal for the United Kingdom's colonies and overseas territories, exercised through a Judicial Committee since 1833.

Designs for new Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices had been made by Sir William Chambers in 1793 and by Thomas Leverton in 1815. Soane was approached in 1822 to design a new Board of Trade owing to 'the great dilapidation of the building, its great insecurity, and its entire inadequacy, from want of accommodation, for the ordinary business of the office' (1828 Report). The old Board of Trade at that time occupied part of the former Palace of Whitehall to the west of the site, next to William Kent's Treasury (drawings 1-6, 9-17).

Soane's first designs for the new Board of Trade are dated May 1823 (drawings 7-8). By the autumn of that year, however, it had been decided to also include new offices for the Privy Council in the building. The new offices were to be built in the space between the Treasury Passage and Downing Street. The first designs produced by Soane were for a 'neo-Grecian' building of two storeys with a basement, with Ionic columns, pavilions and, in some cases, a low dome (King's Works, VI, p. 552) (drawings 20-37). Subsequent designs had a continuous columnar façade (drawings 51-59). One of these designs, employing the Corinthian order, was approved at Fife House on 5 June (drawings 60, 61, 65, 67, 68 and 70).

Excavation of the site began in February 1824 and the first bricks were laid on 2 July. The commencement of work on site, however, did not mean an end to the design process. In the first of many instances of interference by Treasury officials, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick Robinson (1782-1859), expressed his opposition to Soane's frontage of 'insulated' (detached) columns and insisted on the use of three-quarters engaged columns instead (for his reasons, see King's Works, VI, p. 553). Another change directed by Robinson was the replacement of the Corinthian order from the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli with that of the Temple of Jupiter Stator (now identified as Castor and Pollux) in the Campo Vaccino. Soane's protests, which included comparative drawings of the two orders (for example, drawing 93), were dismissed and the new design approved (drawing 94). Robinson's interference continued with requests for Soane to increase the height of the building by the addition of a balustrade (drawing 76) and, subsequently, a 'pavilion' with an attic storey at either end of the building (drawings 157-160).

In order to retain a symmetrical façade it was necessary to extend the northern pavilion in front of the old Tennis Court, then occupied by the Home Department. The extension of the front, however, created a monotonous effect. To remedy this, Soane changed the design to include projecting pavilions of six columns at either end of the building (drawings 160-163, 165-173), but it was an impractical solution - the line of the front of the building meant that the northern pavilion would encroach on to the pavement in front of Melbourne House by 12 feet. A second solution was devised whereby a new building would be erected on the south side of Downing Street, linked to the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices by a Triumphal Arch (drawings 164, 186-197, 200-214, 223-226). In January 1827 this design evolved further as it was proposed to build a new range of buildings to mirror the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, making a symmetrical arrangement with Downing Street at the centre (drawings 243, 271-272). The new range was to be built at an angle - according to a note on a drawing in the National Archives, the line of the front was inspired by the Palazzo Massimo 'alle Colonne' in Rome (WORK 30/319). In Soane's final designs, the façade is again extended in front of the Home Office (drawings 264-265), as shown in a model in the Library-Dining Room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields (L91).

It was not only the building’s exterior that was the victim of interference, however. The Privy Council Chamber was one of Soane's most impressive interiors; a double-height room that was top-lit, with oak wall panelling, custom-made court furniture, pairs of yellow scagliola Ionic columns surmounted with scrolled acroteria, murals depicting British naval and military victories and a richly-decorated 'starfish' ceiling (drawings 151, 215-219, 234-236, 245-246, 249-250, 280). The Chamber, however, was not to everyone's taste. In September 1827, Charles Greville (1794-1865), Clerk of the Privy Council, wrote to the Office of Works to order the removal of the columns, 'their Lordships being of opinion that these columns interfere with the arrangements which will be necessary for the transaction of business in that apartment', and the replacement of the starfish ceiling with a flat one (WORK 1/15). Soane made a drawing showing the Chamber before and after the 'undecoration' works, petulantly inscribed to Greville, but the room earned a reprieve and the work was halted (drawing 254). The Lords Commissioners of the Treasury did make a point of noting, however, the regrettable fact that 'an apartment of so much importance on account of the public purpose for which it is designed, has been finished without any plans of it having been submitted either to the Treasury, or to the heads of the Department for whose use it has been constructed' (WORK 1/15).

As a result of such constant interference, costs spiralled from an initial estimate of £14,800 to around £80,000. In March 1828, a Select Committee was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the buildings and practices of the Office of Works. Not surprisingly, the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices came under close scrutiny and both Soane and Robinson were called upon to give evidence. Several of the drawings catalogued here appear to have been made for the Select Committee (drawings 54-59, 89-90, 269-270). With regards to the new building, the Committee reached the conclusion that 'such is the unsatisfactory state in which this large and costly structure stands, from being begun without a plan which had been maturely considered, from injudicious alterations and changes having been made during its progress, and contrary, as it appears by his own statement, to the opinion of the architect; but under whatever direction this work may have proceeded, there can be only one opinion of the work itself; and although your Committee cannot clearly ascertain to whom the blame attaches, the system cannot be good which has produced such a result' (1828 Report).

Work on the new Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices was complete by the beginning of 1828. The only part of Soane's grand scheme to be built was the section between Downing Street and the Treasury Passage. It was left to Charles Barry (1795-1860) to provide more offices for the growing State departments and to remedy the asymmetrical façade. This he achieved by raising the basement and replacing the detached columns of the pavilion with three-quarters engaged columns, which allowed him to complete a matching pavilion at the north end of the building for the Home Office. It was Barry's task, too, to dismantle the columns and ceiling of the Privy Council Chamber in 1845. While much of Soane's work has been lost, significant survivals include the western part of the Downing Street elevation, the entrance hall from Downing Street and several lobbies, as well as Soane's court furniture, chimneypieces and wall paneling. The building is currently used by the Cabinet Office.

As well as the 284 drawings catalogued here, Sir John Soane's Museum has other collections relating to the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices including four models and Soane's correspondence, journals and day books. The Victoria and Albert Museum has 13 drawings for the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. In addition there are at the National Archives a further five drawings dated April and May 1833 (WORK 30/318-22) and the records of the Office of Works.

The National Archives, WORK 1/12-16, 4/26-29, 30/318-322; Report from the Select Committee on the Office of Works and Public Buildings, 1828; Sir John Soane, Designs for Public and Private Buildings, 1832, pp. 7-8; Sir John Soane, Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect, 1835; A.T. Bolton, The Portrait of Sir John Soane, 1927, pp. 450-1; M. H. Cox and P. Norman (eds), Survey of London: Vol. XVI: St. Margaret, Westminster, Part III, 1931; 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, pp. 551-62; P. du Prey, Catalogues of Architectural Drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum: Sir John Soane, 1985, pp. 104-5; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane, Architect, 1996, pp. 226-7; S. C. Hurst, The Reconstruction of Downing Street and the Old Treasury, 1960-64, unpublished MSc thesis, 1999/2004; P. Dean, Sir John Soane and London, 2006, pp. 102-9; Privy Council Papers online <www.privycouncilpapers.org>; UK Parliament <www.parliament.uk>; The Privy Council <privycouncil.independent.gov.uk>

Tom Drysdale, January 2014



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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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).  

Contents of London: Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, Whitehall & Downing Street: designs for new offices and scheme for the improvement of Downing Street, 1823-33 (284)