Explore Collections Explore The Collections
You are here: CollectionsOnline  /  Drawings

Soane's architectural education including theoretical designs made for the Royal Academy Schools and for exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1770-80, and in Italy, 1778-80

The online catalogue of the drawings relating to Soane's architectural education was researched and written part-time by Jill Lever, former curator of the Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection, and author of Catalogue of the drawings of George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and George Dance the Elder (1695-1768): from the collection of Sir John Soane's Museum, Azimuth Editions, London, 2003.


I would like to warmly thank Margaret Richardson for reading and commenting on this catalogue and, like Professor Pierre du Prey, for examining and discussing the drawings attributed to George Dance and Robert Baldwin.

My work was funded by a generous five-year grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Jill Lever, December 2009

John Soane was accepted as a student in architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts, London on 25 October 1771, six weeks after his eighteenth birthday. Founded in 1768, the Royal Academy established the Schools in the following year offering 'the first and only opportunity at that time in England to study architecture as a fine art within a formally constituted 'public' (i.e. free) school of art.... The architectural curriculum was designed to complement rather than to provide a substitute for what could only be learnt in the office of a successful architect'.

Soane worked in the offices of George Dance (from 1768 to 1772) and Henry Holland (from 1772 to 1778). The R. A. Schools offered the architectural students 'an annual course of six illustrated lectures delivered on Monday evenings by the Professor of Architecture, Thomas Sandby; deriving what benefit they could from a similar course of more technical lectures given by the Professor of Perspective ...'. A library was available to the students one day a week and they 'were entitled to compete for the Academy's prizes [of] one or more silver medals awarded annually for a measured, pen-and-wash drawing of a notable building within a ten-mile radius of London, and a gold medal "for the best Composition in Architecture, consisting of a Plan, Elevation and Section" .... All gold medal winners, whether they were painters, sculptors or architects, were entitled in turn to compete together for the Academy's highest accolade, a single three-year Travelling Scholarship funded by a royal pension of £60 per annum plus £30 travelling expenses each way.' (quoted from Nicholas Savage, 'A Royal Academy student in architecture', M. Richardson and M. Stevens (eds), John Soane architect: master of space and light, 1999, p.86)

Soane's student drawings (catalogued here) include two measured drawings, two five-hour designs and two Gold Medal designs, all with subjects chosen by the Royal Academy. He won a Silver Medal for his measured drawing of the Banqueting House, Whitehall (q.v.) and a Gold Medal for his design for a Triumphal Bridge (q.v.). Other designs with subjects determined by Soane rather than the Royal Academy allowed him to explore theoretical projects of a scale not possible in the everyday work of an architect's office. Such projects as a design for an 'Academy of Arts' and another for a mausoleum to the memory of James King (q.q.v) were hung at the Royal Academy exhibitions of 1776 and 1777 gaining Soane some attention.

Soane's winning of the Gold Medal of 1776, allowed him to compete for the Travelling Scholarship where he was again successful. He spent the next year or so in preparing his first publication Designs in architecture (published 1778) and readying himself for three years abroad. Soane left London on 18 March 1778 and arrived in Rome on 2 May.

A condition of the Royal Academy's travel award was that students were to send home drawings for a theoretical project for the annual exhibition. Aware of this, Soane had already chosen the subject of a British Senate House (q.v.) and began to make preliminary designs before he left; three drawings were sent from Rome and hung at the Royal Academy in 1779. A year after his early return to London in 1780, Soane exhibited three other ideal projects that he had worked on during his time abroad. Soane's fierce determination to succeed is evident throughout his years as an architectural student. The contribution of George Dance is discussed in several of the catalogue entries that follow.

Catalogued with these original, theoretical design drawings are copies by pupils or assistants in Soane's office that record an earlier design drawing usually to a smaller scale. In a few cases the original drawings have not survived so that the copies are the only source for a design. Such 'record' drawings are not related to the building process but are an exercise and may well be part of a pupil's professional education.

There are also perspectives of some of these early designs made by J.M.Gandy (1771-1843) both from 1798 to 1801 when he was in Soane's office and subsequently. More pictorial than the usual architectural perspective and beautifully shaded and lit, while they did not take liberties with Soane's designs, Gandy's watercolour drawings re-imagined the buildings they represented.

For sketch/notebooks, annotated guidebooks, and measured drawings that record Soane's travels in Italy and abroad see Sketchbooks database and Soane in Italy: measured drawings made or copied, 1778-80.

Literature. P. du Prey, John Soane's architectural education 1753-80, 1977, Garland Publishing Inc., New York & London (dissertation presented to the Faculty of Princeton University 1972, chapter II et passim ); P. du Prey, John Soane: the making of an architect, 1982, (chapters 4, 5, 9 et passim) - both du Prey's dissertation and book cover in detail Soane's early years including his studentship at the Royal Academy and his tour abroad - M. Richardson and M. Stevens (eds), John Soane architect: master of space and light, 1999 (pp.78-113) ; N.Bingham, 'Architecture at the Royal Academy Schools, 1768 to 1836', pp.5-14, in The Education of the architect, Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Symposium of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, 1993; D.Watkin, 'Sir John Soane's Grand Tour: its impact on his architecture and his collections', C.Hornsby (ed), The Impact of Italy: the Grand Tour and Beyond, British School at Rome, 2000, pp.101-119; J. Lever, 'The Soane-Dance collaboration, 1771-1799, Architectural History, volume 53, 2010, pp.163-190