Thursday, December 13, 2018


Soane explored a wide range of different treatments for Lothbury Court before arriving at the Triumphal Arch motif that was eventually built.

I have a whole folder full of drawings downloaded from the online archive of the Sir John Soane Museum in London.  I've looked through these many times, but there are so many, and which ones are different views of the same scheme?  What order were they created in?  Maybe some of them were developed in parallel by different pupils.  I ought to read the notes and check for dates on the drawings, but that's so academic.

A faster way to get to grips with these questions might be to make some quick sketches: engage actively with hands, eyes & brain.  So I scanned through the images for noticeably different versions and ultimately came up with four different sketches.

I'm using the Android version of Sketchbook Pro on my phone.  I have it on iPad also, but somehow the urge to sketch often comes to me when lying in bed, or maybe that's when I have the time, when I let go of all the other imperatives. There's a jpeg on the first layer, then a layer of flat colour set with a slight transparency to give for that "yellow tracing" effect. Then a layer for the linework, and another one or two for colour fills.  Finally I will use a soft brush to rough in some shadows, give it some depth.

The first scheme is a 3 storey facade, divided into three bays by columns.  It could be an urban house with a coach entrance.  I'm taking this as the first in the series because that just makes sense to me.  It allows me to tell a story.  Soane is trying to create a ceremonial space for the entry of gold. He wants to represent the people of England rallying to the cause in times of war.  Gold for paper.  So an town-house is not really going to cut it.

Sketch two.  Brings the end columns in and pairs them up, pushing the windows of the side bays outwards to make room for the resulting features which are crowned with his favourite double-scroll motif.  Stand back and look at this scheme.  It's definitely much better, but does it really hang together?  Isn't it just five different bits side by side, with a centre bay that's a little weak?

So we come to the third of my sketches.  You can see that I'm faster and looser in the way that I sketch as I try to hunt down this puzzle. This time he has taken the "columns in antis" motif from the screen wall that he very recently erected along Lothbury, and reproduced it on this parallel internal wall.  Now we have a triumphal arch, (which is great) but is it a good idea to echo the treatment of the external fortifications in this internal "celebratory" space?  And isn't the whole thing rather squeezed into the courtyard with no room to breathe?  (more importantly perhaps no room for the grand flight of stairs he would need to introduce on either side of the processional route)

The fourth sketch brings us most of the way towards the final solution.  He has introduced the four statues, but they are high up above the attic.  Eventually he would drop them down to the cornice level and raise the parapet slightly on the centre bay.  If you look back at the first image, I think you will agree with me that the final solution achieves a unity that eludes the earlier attempts, while focusing attention on the centre bay.

It will be interesting to read the notes and date the drawings now that I've come to grips with the issues.  Maybe I am altogether wrong, but at least I've started to highlight some of the potential issues, to create some scaffolding for a deeper understanding.  But I'll come back to that.  Time to start developing the tunnel itself.

There is a section through the tunnel.  At first sight this is very exciting, but when you start to model, it doesn't quite work. It must have been drawn before he decided to form an apse at the transition to Bullion Court.  This shortens the central portion.  The plan which I have placed next to this section is the same mix of "AHA!" and "WTF?" Service stairs in the leftover trapezoidal spaces on either side: that makes sense.  But why is he showing those long flights of steps around the edge of the courtyard.  They were certainly never built.  Because ... photographs.

This work has been like that all along.  One minute you are full of excitement as another piece falls into place, then you realise that something else just doesn't work, and no single set of drawings or photographs gives a definitive view of the building as it was in 1830.  The photographs of the  tunnel are very dark and grainy, but I have a feeling that it was kept rather plain and simple.  All the same I am trying out a modified version of that coloured section.  Sometimes I prefer the spirit of Soane's intent to the dry letter of inconclusive "evidence".

I think it's worth putting all this elevational development into a planning context.  The North East extension (orange) filled out the site to its irregular rear boundaries, as they were at the time.  Lothbury to the North East, and the dogleg of Princes Street to the North West.  Sampson's double courtyard is in red.  Taylor's extension on either side in pink, with his library tucked around the back.  Soane wanted to create another double courtyard, this time separated by just a thin screen.  But to make room for this he needed to move the library into the top corner of the site.

My final diagram shows how carefully calculated his geometric tricks needed to be.  Obviously I haven't quite got the setting out right because the axis doesn't sit properly down the centre of Lothbury Court.  I think he was remarkably lucky in being able to double up the Lothbury screen wall and maintain symmetry.  But there was skill in pulling it off also.  Lots of awkward junctions to be finessed.



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