In the late 18th century, there were a few paths to becoming an architect: independent study of books, formal architectural education, exploratory travel, and ascent through the building trades. Through a persistent, varied, and self-made career, Soane accomplished all of these. The youngest of five and the son of a bricklayer from Goring-on-Thames, John “Soan” was born on 10 September 1753. Following the death of his father, Soane entered the office of George Dance the Younger at the age of fifteen and he later served as an assistant to Henry Holland from 1772 to 1778. Educated at the Royal Academy and an early recipient of a travel grant that allowed him to undertake a Grand Tour, Soane’s personal and professional life surged in the 1780s with the foundation of an architectural practice, his marriage to Eliza Smith, the purchase of his first properties, and appointment as Architect of the Bank of England. Looking to obscure his humble beginnings within the competitive and class-driven world of London, he added the “e” to the end of this name. Eliza’s uncle, George Wyatt (no relation to the architect), left a considerable inheritance that fueled Soane’s bibliomania, architectural and artistic collections, and the creation of offices and residences that were reflective of his architectural ambitions: Pitzhanger Manor and later, the luminous and labyrinthian house-museum along the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Navigating changing regents and tastes, Soane weathered public critiques of his work and even lawsuits. His significant built works include the light-filled Dulwich Picture Gallery, elements of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, public projects as an architect of the Office of Works, and an array of churches, urban residences, and country houses. Dedicated to the professionalism of architectural practice, Soane’s prolific career included numerous appointments and accolades: Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Fellow of the Royal Society, Royal Academician and Professor of Architecture, in which capacity he greatly enriched the illustrated architectural lecture, Gold Medal from the “Architects of England” (many of them associated with the nascent Institute of British Architects, later RIBA), and in 1831 he was knighted by King William IV. As an architect, Soane continues to inspire designers through his writings, educational legacy, and built works that straddle the realms of Georgian neoclassicism, neogothic, picturesque, and planar modernism. Designed in 1924 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, a trustee of Soane’s Museum, England’s famous red telephone boxes even bear Soane’s architectural fingerprint, the canopy dome mimicking the form of Soane’s family tomb.
In Memoirs he recalled that, as if by divine intervention, he was “led by natural inclination to study architecture at age fifteen” (1835). Following the precedent of architects such as the Adam brothers, Chambers, and the Dances, travel in Italy was considered requisite for a successful career in London. Lacking private funds to secure a journey, Soane tirelessly developed his designs and drawings at the Royal Academy: he won the Silver Medal in 1772, the Gold in 1776, and was awarded the Travelling Scholarship a year later. As noted by Darley 1999, without the annual £60 stipend associated with the scholarship, Soane may have never left England. Soane made the most of his travels, exploring an array of sites in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Although many of his drawings were lost during his journey home, Soane forged ahead and began his architectural office upon his return to England. Adhering to Dance’s early urgings to avoid rigid adherence to a certain style, Jencks 1999 notes that Soane pioneered a unique amalgamation of classicism and eclecticism, paired with the planar character of his brickwork. His work was also informed by meetings and friendships with notable contemporaries: Piranesi, the Cosways, John Flaxman, and J. M. W Turner. Unable to freely travel due to professional obligations or perhaps motivated by the awareness that many of his fellow citizens did not have the means to travel internationally, Soane brought the world to his house museum. Through the arrangement of artifacts, casts, and paintings, Soane’s labyrinthian creation continues to inspire as it allows students and visitors to “travel” through his eye. Summerson 1952 recontextualized the architect’s work for a modern audience. Despite Soane’s relentless encouragement and desire to foster an architectural legacy, neither of his sons followed in his footsteps. His eldest, John, died in 1823 and George found success as a writer, amid struggles with debts and a litigious relationship with his father that nearly prevented the preservation of Soane’s Museum, as detailed in Stroud 1961. Tragedy followed the latter decades of Soane’s life: although he underwent risky cataract surgery in 1825, Soane struggled with a dimming world and by 1833 he resigned his appointments due to his failing eyesight. Nonetheless, his legacy looms large in the architectural world as explored in the exhibition catalog and accompanying collection of essays in Stevens and Richardson 1999.
Darley, Gillian. John Soane: An Accidental Romantic. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
A comprehensive biography exploring Soane’s architectural career and family life.
Jencks, Charles. The Riddle of John Soane: Deciphering the Enigma Code of Soanic Architecture. London: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 1999.
Part of an annual lecture series that reflects the ongoing breadth and impact of Soane’s influence on architectural design, theory, and historiography, as well as wide-ranging interpretations of his work, this is a transcription of a lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons, where the postmodernist argues that Soane was a modernist with an innovative approach to the tenants of classical tradition.
Soane, John. Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect between the Years 1768 and 1835. London: James Moyes Castle Street Leicester Square, 1835.
Dedicated to his namesake grandson and distributed originally to friends to highlight his devotion to architecture as well as the struggles and disappointments associated with the profession. Includes sections from the Description (Soane 1835) and portions of letters of public thanks for his architectural works. Work privately printed and not published.
Stevens, Mary Anne, and Margaret Richardson, eds. John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light. London: Royal Academy of Arts distributed by Yale University Press, 1999.
A comprehensive and well-sourced volume on Soane’s career and legacy, with large, high-resolution images, detailed captions, a chronology of Soane’s life and work by Soane’s Museum archivist, Susan Palmer.
Stroud, Dorothy. The Architecture of Sir John Soane. London: Studio, 1961.
Introduction by Henry-Russell Hitchcock; the first postwar book on Soane and a canonic volume with particular attention to Soane’s material interests and his associated craftsmen.
Stroud, Dorothy. Sir John Soane Architect. 2d ed. London: de la Mare, 1996.
A culminating research work, representative of Stroud’s nearly forty years of service as the Inspectress of Soane’s Museum.
Summerson, John. Sir John Soane, 1753–1837. London: Art & Technics, 1952.
A key postwar publication by the curator of Soane’s Museum, 1945–1984; few illustrations.
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