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Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, London: (executed) a house for John Soane and six unexecuted schemes for a villa at Acton, 1800-1832 (285)

This online catalogue of drawings for Pitzhanger Manor was written by Matilda Burn in 2010 and is based on Virginia Brilliant's typescript catalogue for the Soane Museum (1998).

By the beginning of 1800 John Soane had already built himself a successful architectural career and been appointed Surveyor to the Bank of England. He was married, had two sons and inherited a fortune from his wife’s uncle (which along with his professional earnings rendered him financially very comfortable). Soane had also rebuilt his town house at number 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields; not an extensive property. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that Soane’s thoughts would turn to the creation of a country estate in which he could expand his collection and build a house on his own terms.

Thus on 25 May 1800 Soane purchased a plot of land on the Gunnersbury estate at Acton for £500. Several designs for a villa on the site followed but were abandoned with great speed when Soane was informed that Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing was being advertised for sale by the trustees of the Gurnell estate. The significance of Pitzhanger for Soane was great. It had been the first project that he had worked on as a 15 year old, in the office of George Dance the Younger, so a sense of nostalgia must have contributed to Soane’s decision to purchase the estate, which he did, paying £4,500 on 1 August and completing the transaction on 5 September. Soane’s eagerness to start work at Pitzhanger can be seen in one of the designs for a house at Ealing (drawing 73, Section 3), which pre-dates his purchase (as early as 2 July).

Once the land was bought Soane quickly set about surveying the property, recording the old house which he writes of in his 1832 description as ‘an incongruous mass of buildings, but sufficiently capacious for the reception of a large establishment. The whole had been erected without any general plan: the exterior, composed of lofty brick walls, three stories high, with perforations for the admission of light, and for ingress and egress, was deficient in symmetry and character, so necessary to distinguish the work of an artist from that of a speculative builder.’ However, the internal decoration of the south wing built by Soane’s old master George Dance, Soane described as displaying a ‘profusion of ornaments, exquisite in taste, and admirable in execution’.

Demolition of the old house (except for the Dance wing) began on 6 October 1800. It is perhaps significant that Soane neglects to mention the exterior of Dance’s wing - several designs, some dating as late as 1806, show Soane experimenting with the idea of demolishing or reducing this wing, presumably to give the building a greater degree of symmetry. This wing was retained however, as was the internal decorative scheme.

The demolition and general building works were overseen by Soane’s trusted Clerk of Works, Walter Payne, who moved into temporary accommodation in Dance’s wing at the beginning of October 1800. Many of the drawings relating to Pitzhanger can be attributed to Soane as well as to various pupils including Thomas Sword, Henry Hake Seward and Charles Malton. Alongside the construction of a new house, garden design was one of the first things that occupied Soane. He employed John Haverfield of Kew to lay out the grounds from as early as 15 September 1800 and in 1801 ‘Mr Haverfield’s Man’, George Angus, was entrusted with the maintenance of the grounds.

By 1801 the construction of the main body of the house must have been well under way. The designs for the Library and Breakfast Room date from February 1801 and August 1802 but it was not until 21 January 1803 that Soane’s Day Book records the process of arranging his collection of vases in the Breakfast Room at Ealing. Pitzhanger and its internal decoration must have been largely complete by 1804, as on 29 April 1804 Mrs Soane recorded in her diary ‘dined at Ealing on a hot dinner for the first time’. Sadly, only five years later the first advertisement for the sale of Pitzhanger appeared in The Times and in 1810 the house was sold to General Cameron for £10,000. Soane retained an interest in the house however; there is some discussion of dower rights for Mrs Soane in 1815 when the house was sold for the second time to Mr Clifton. Soane’s interest in Pitzhanger endured into the 1830s when the property was sold for a third time to Lord Reay. At this point Soane and his pupil and assistant C.J. Richardson made several watercolours and sketches of the building as it was and as Soane would have liked it to be. These were for the purpose of illustrating two publications, one a descriptive work on Pitzhanger and the other a self written retrospective of Soane’s work: Plans, Elevations and Perspective Views of Pitzhanger Manor-House, 1833 and Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect between the years 1768 and 1835 written by himself 1835.

Pitzhanger house itself is approached from the north-east corner of the estate by a ‘triumphal arch’ gated entrance, with one large archway for carriages flanked by two smaller gates for pedestrians. Paired flint pilasters articulate the arch piers and each pair is surmounted by a shallow canopy dome cap, with a pineapple finial. A sweeping drive (originally bordered by trees and shrubs) then curves around to the house, forcing the visitor to approach the house from the most picturesque angle. Originally, the gate faced directly onto the entrance front of the old house but discussion between Haverfield and Soane quickly saw the position altered. The Account Journal for 11 July 1801 records this decision; ‘Mr Haverfield called at Ealing. I proposed to enter at the corner – he approves but must cut down three trees.’

The eventual appearance of Pitzhanger was to take the form of a two-storey London stock brick villa with a raised basement, the entrance facade articulated by four Portland stone Ionic columns surmounted by figurative sculptures. The facade loosely resembles the form of a Roman triumphal arch, as the gated entrance does in a more rustic fashion. The facade resembles the twostorey proportions of the Arch of Constantine – tall ground floor and compressed upper - articulated on the lower storey in each case by tall columns surmounted by figurative statues. The ratios of the door and window arches of Pitzhanger facade also suggest the Roman structure’s large central arch flanked by shorter ones. The lawn front provides a much less formal prospect, originally with a conservatory running the whole length of the first floor. The Dance wing is retained to the south of Soane’s ‘new’ villa and the ground floor of the latter was raised slightly above that of the original house to compensate for the additional raised basement that Soane added to his villa. Soane added steps so that the visitor had to descend into the older part of the building, which also had the symbolic significance of creating a physical descent into the past. Soane’s villa was fairly compact internally, consisting of a Breakfast Room, Library, small Drawing Room and on the first floor only three principal bedrooms. To this Soane added a basement with a ‘Monk’s Dining Room’ and sculpture room, an office or service wing connected to the main house via a colonnade as well as various stables and outbuildings beyond some classical ruins designed by Soane for the site.

The ten-year design history of Ealing (longer if the 1830s drawings are counted) is governed by Soane’s reasons for purchasing Pitzhanger. These reasons were, generally, as follows: first, that he wanted a showpiece house to advertise both his architectural skill and his standing within society and his profession to friends and clients; secondly and leading on from the first, Soane wanted to display his new found professional standing as the Surveyor to the Bank of England; thirdly, although a modest collector already by 1800, Soane wanted a larger display setting for a more extensive collection - one designed specifically around the objects; fourthly, Pitzhanger Manor was intended as a legacy for the Soane family name, to be inhabited by his eldest son, John, who Soane anticipated would carry on the family profession.

The first of these reasons for building a country house is clearly seen in drawing 35, which includes marginal sketches of houses in the vicinity of Pitzhanger, labelled as belonging (in Soane’s opinion) to various persons of note. Pitzhanger’s most obvious function was as a place of entertainment. The Soane family rarely slept at the house, preferring to travel to and from London and their guests were seldom invited to stay the night. Day guests were frequent at Pitzhanger however, and included J.M.W. Turner, Sir Francis Bourgeois, John Winter (Solicitor to the Bank of England), fellow Royal Academicians, the Flaxmans, de Loutherbourgs, James Peacock, Augustus Callcott, as well as the Duchess of Leeds, Lord and Lady Bridport, the Duc d’Orleans and later, King Louis Philippe of France. The grounds are referred to by Soane as ‘pleasure grounds’ and the construction of the mock ruins in the estate grounds certainly had some function for the amusement of guests. In his new position of professional and social standing, it was very important to Soane that his house should advertise his status and intellectual qualities to friends and clients who visited. Therefore, although small in scale, Pitzhanger is made to convey a sense of grandeur to the viewer, particularly through its porticoed entrance, classical references and manipulation of scale both internally and externally.

Typically, throughout the design of Pitzhanger, Soane repeatedly employed many of the same motifs so that his architectural meaning was continuous throughout the house. Thus the canopy dome that appears on the piers to the gated entrance is seen inside-out in the vestibule and Breakfast Room domed ceilings. The canopy dome is by no means the only repeated motif. The suggestion of the Arch of Constantine implied in the gated entrance is repeated on the facade of the house and in the ruined triumphal arch adjacent to the house, created by Soane. The same applies to the decorative schemes applied to all three, taken from the arch of Constantine (particularly Thomas Banks’ roundels of Sol and Lunar which are repeated in the reconstructions of the ruins and in the vestibule to the main house). The wreathed eagle relief enclosed by an acroterion of the gated entrance is repeated in the Breakfast Room reliefs, on the facade of the house and again on the sarcophagus lids portrayed in drawing 211.

Obviously the repeated motifs all express a Classical language that Soane so admired. Summerson suggests a further meaning, that the canopy domes and acroterion design are deliberate funereal motifs, given their similarity to cinerary urn lids and the ends of antique sarcophagi, respectively. The cinerary urns indicated in drawing 211 may also be suggested as a ‘funereal’ source for this choice of decorative element. These ornaments link into the sepulchral internal decoration of the Breakfast Room, evident in Gandy’s watercolour (205). They also, however, convey the architect’s position to the world – Soane had used them all in his designs for the Bank of England, particularly on the south entrance arch to the Lothbury court, completed a few years previously. Here, on either side of the main arch Soane set Thomas Bank’s original casts of Sol and Lunar. Thus Soane sets up a Classical vocabulary and source as well as indicating his position as Surveyor to the Bank of England through the same motifs. In the same breath, Soane foreshadows his collection of antiquities within the house itself by suggesting some of their forms on the exterior – the acroterion is a motif that can be seen in drawing 211. Soane’s intended use of the house as a receptacle for his collection is evident, then, even in the entrance gate and throughout the house in this repetition of forms.

Ultimately, however, Soane states his own intention in creating Pitzhanger: ‘My object in purchasing these premises was to have a residence for myself and family, and afterwards my eldest son.’ Soane was very anxious that his eldest son John should carry on the family name in the profession of architecture and went to great pains to have him educated with this aim in view. The designs mentioned above set Pitzhanger as part of a personal history as well as a national architectural chronology as Bianca De Divitiis (op.cit below) suggests. Dance’s wing was Soane’s past and the past national architectural style. The ruins set the house even further into history. Soane’s sons were to be the future. However this changed when John and George became a disappointment to their father and as a result Soane reinvented the way in which he viewed Pitzhanger during the 1830s, in his publications and illustrations on the subject. Several illustrations by Soane and C.J. Richardson during this period show the Dance wing with late Tudor pinnacles ornamenting each of the corners above the cornice. Divitiis indicates that this may have been a way of erasing the personal aspect of Pitzhanger’s architecture and instead setting it firmly in a national architectural chronology of style. The representation of the ruins at that time supports this idea. Soane’s description of their origins in Plans, Elevations and Perspective Views of Pitzhanger Manor-House shows them changing with every significant phase in English architectural and general history.

It was the failure of Soane’s sons to live up to their father’s expectations, as well as Mrs Soane’s declining health that led to Pitzhanger’s sale so soon after construction. Pitzhanger’s main purpose had become redundant and instead Soane turned his attention to the expansion of Lincoln’s Inn Fields to house his collection and represent his standing in life.

Today much of Soane’s original Pitzhanger survives in Ealing but with numerous alterations and additions. The colonnade was replaced in 1844, under the Perceval sisters’ ownership, with the current extension of rooms. The conservatory was removed c.1901 when the house was refitted as a public library. At this time an extension was added to the Dance wing for the same purpose and the porch-entrance added to the same wing by Charles Jones, the Borough Surveyor who also demolished the service wing to provide a new lending library. The house, now owned by Ealing District Council, was opened as a library in April 1902. The 1940s saw further alterations as the lending library was replaced by a larger facility on the same site. Restoration began in 1984 when the public library was moved to another location and the building was opened as a museum in 1985. Currently, Pitzhanger is in the process of a further restoration project aiming to return the building to its original condition. There are plans to recreate the gardens as they could have looked and demolish the library extensions on both sides. It is possible that the conservatory may also be reproduced, along with the ruins. Without the collection of designs that Soane left behind, this process would of course be rather more difficult.

J. Soane, Memoirs of the professional life of an architect between the years 1768 and 1835 written by himself, privately printed, London 1835; J. Soane, MS for the History of 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Ealing; J. Soane, Plans, elevations and perspective views of Pitzhanger Manor-House, 1833; G. Darley , John Soane – an accidental Romantic, pp. 152-158; P. Dean, 'Pitshanger Manor, Middlesex', pp.90-101, Sir John Soane and the country estate, 1999; B. De Divitis, ‘Plans, elevations and perspective views of Pitzhanger Manor-House', pp.55-74, The Georgian Group Journal , XIV, 2004; B. De Divitiis, ‘New drawings for the interiors of the Breakfast Room and Library at Pitzhanger Manor’, pp.163-172, Architectural History Vol 48, 2005; B. De Divitiis, ‘A newly discovered volume from the office of Sir John Soane’, pp. 180-198, The Burlington Magazine CXLV, March 2003; H. Dorey, ‘Sir John Soane’s Pitzhanger Manor: the beginnings of Soane’s Museum’, pp.17-32, Trackers, exhibition catalogue, PM Gallery and House, 2004; H. Ewing, ‘Pitzhanger Manor’, pp.142-149, eds. M Richardson and M Stevenson (eds), Sir John Soane: Master of Space and Light, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1999; S. Feinberg Millenson, ‘Pitzhanger Manor: the beginnings of Soane’s Museum’, pp. 5-21, Sir John Soane’s Museum, UMI Research Press, 1987; E. Leary, Pitzhanger Manor an introduction, Ealing Borough Council, January 1990; J. Summerson, 'Sir John Soane and the furniture of death', pp.135-7, The Unromantic castle and other essays, 1990; C. Woodward (ed), Visions of ruin: architectural fantasies and designs for garden follies, exhibition catalogue, Sir John Soane’s Museum, 1999
See also SM volume 67/53 verso for a half elevation of an initial design for Pitzhanger re-used for a survey plan of North Mymms Park. (Jill Lever, 29 June 2015)
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