Sir John Soane and gardens…

John Soane, by Thomas Cooley, 1810 National Portrait Gallery

John Soane, by Thomas Cooley, 1810
National Portrait Gallery

My favourite museum in the entire country is Sir John Soane’s in Lincolns Inn Fields in central London. Soane is amongst England’s greatest architects and his former home and museum, built between 1792 and 1824, is simply fabulous in the truest sense of the word.

Architectural historian Dan Cruikshank says: “It’s just tremendous – utterly individual and peculiar. It was shocking and inspirational. It is architecture of the highest genius. He reinvented the language of classical architecture.” [Independent, 14 February 2011].

Here is Soane himself presiding over  the quirkiest collection of antiquities and paintings imaginable, housed in a sublime building that’s full of architectural innovations and surprises.  So if you have never been GO NOW and become acquainted with Soane’s genius firsthand.  But for all that praise I have never  really associated Soane with gardens…. or rather, not until quite recently.

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The MOnk’s Yard, complete with Fanny’s Tomb for Mrs Soane’s dog. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Certainly, as you can see from this ground-plan of his house and museum, there is virtually no outside space – just three small courtyards, and even they  are filled with monuments and artefacts rather than plants. The best known is the ‘Monk’s Yard’, a mock-ruin assembled from real medieval fragments of the Palace of Westminster where Soane was the architect.

Sir John Soane’s key to the park in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (by kind permission of Sir John Soane’s Museum and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan)

Sir John Soane’s key to the park in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Sir John Soane’s Museum

 

 

Of course its true that the house faces Lincoln’s Inn Fields which in Soane’s day was  a private square, with residents  being key holders. Perhaps he felt that using the square and maximising the space for his collection was more important than planting a private garden.

But Soane also had a country house – Pitzhanger Manor – in Ealing which he bought in 1800, and there he did indulge in some gardening.

 

 

Perspective: Pitzhanger Manor Sir John Soane Museum

Perspective: Pitzhanger Manor
Sir John Soane Museum

Pitzhanger is a grade 1 listed building and has been in the news recently because in June it received a grant of £4.42 million from the  Heritage Lottery Fund, and in July a further almost £500,000 from the Arts Council.  This follows the award in July 2011 of £2.4 million to Ealing Council for the adjacent Walpole Park, which was once part of Soane’s grounds.

More details of what has been done so far and what is planned, can be found at:

http://www.pitzhanger.org.uk/restoration-project

John Soane Junior and George Soane, by William Owen,  1805  Sir John Soane’s Museum

John Soane Junior and George Soane, by William Owen, 1805
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Soane had, by 1800,  built himself a successful architectural practice, and was  married with two sons. He was also comfortably off.  His professional earnings were substantial but additionally he had inherited a fortune from his wife’s uncle.  A country estate was the next step.  He was planning to build elsewhere when Pitzhanger came on the market.

Perspective of the entrance front and service wing Henry Hake Seward 5 Nov.1800 Sir John Soane's Museum

Perspective of the entrance front and service wing
Henry Hake Seward, 5 Nov.1800
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Survey of the estate with block plan of the original house and plan of stables, with suggested alterations, Sept 1800. Sir John Soane Museum

Survey of the estate with block plan of the original house and plan of stables, with suggested alterations, Sept 1800. Sir John Soane Museum

Although Soane described the existing house in his 1833 publication Elevations, and Perspective Views, of Pitzhanger Manor-House, as ‘an incongruous mass of buildings’,  he probably had fond memories of it since  he had worked on plans for an extension to it, at the age of 15 when he was in training with George Dance.

 

Soane often commissioned paintings as a record when he intended to alter or demolish a building, and that’s exactly what Seward’s painting was for. Within months of Soane’s purchase the old house was knocked down, apart from Dance’s new wing, and  the materials reused in the construction of the  new  villa. There is a lengthy architectural history of Pitzhanger, and many surviving drawings online at the Soane Museum catalogue:

http://www.jeromeonline.co.uk/drawings/index.cfm?display_scheme=620

Plan of the estate as it was at the time of Soane's purchase, with block plan for a new house sited in alternative locations , August 1800,  Sir John Spane's Museum

Plan of the estate as it was at the time of Soane’s purchase, with block plan for a new house sited in alternative locations , August 1800,
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Alongside the construction of a new showpiece house, garden design was one of the first things that occupied Soane.  He called in John Haverfield, the son of the chief gardener of the royal gardens at Richmond and Kew  and with whom he often worked, to lay out the grounds. In  1801 ‘Mr Haverfield’s Man’, George Angus, was entrusted with the maintenance of what  Soane referred to as the  ‘pleasure grounds’.

In Soane’s time, the walled garden was, according to the Walpole Park restoration project “a haven of flowers, fruit and vegetables, enclosed by red brick walls with arched entrances.” Soane himself “took an interest in practical gardening and was even a member of the ‘Committee of Taste’, an exclusive group which advised on fashionable recipes of the day. Many of these recipes were based on produce found within the park and were often served at the Pitzhanger Manor dining table.”

The rustic bridge in WAlpole Park, formerly part of Soane's garden  P.G.Champion This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales license.

The rustic bridge in Walpole Park, formerly part of Soane’s garden
P.G.Champion This file is licensed under the Creative Commons s license.

Features which either Soane inherited or added are being restored.  These include a low rustic classically-styled 3-arched bridge, probably pre-dating Sloane, but which he  had resurfaced with rubble, flint and dressed stone to suggest greater antiquity.

Pitzhanger Manor House in Ealing 's Walpole Park. Photograph: Alamy from the Guardian, 9 Jan 2013

Pitzhanger Manor House in Ealing ‘s Walpole Park. Photograph: Alamy from the Guardian, 9 Jan 2013

 

The two original water features have been recreated, and dozens of Regency period varieties of trees, flowers and shrubs have been planted.  The walled garden is to have a cafe and other facilities installed, but will also feature heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables.

 

But Soane was not content with merely gardening like everyone else. He wanted more than nice plants, the odd garden seat or statue. He wanted something quite spectacular – a ruin!

Plan of the ruins, courtyard and elevation/section of the temple front with some rough studies, June 1802, Sir John Spoane's Museum

Plan of the ruins, courtyard and elevation/section of the temple front with some rough studies, June 1802,
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Soane, like so many of his era, was fascinated by ruins. But he took the cult of ruins to a new level.  At Pitzhanger he designed a complete faux classical ruin based on the Roman site of Clitumnus, near Spoleto,  to look as if  he had excavated a temple at the bottom of the garden.

Perspective view of the ruins, c1802-04,   Sir John Soane's Museum,

Perspective view of the ruins, c1802-04,
Sir John Soane’s Museum,

Was this to root the  architecture of the house in a long classical tradition? To give it a false place in history? Or merely for his own and his guest’s amusement?  We will probably never know. However he does leave a clue. The ruins were first shown to friends in 1804 and he later wrote that “one of my first objects was to ridicule those fanciful architects and antiquarians who finding a  few pieces of columns, and sometimes only a few single stones, proceeded from these slender data to imagine magnificent buildings.” [quoted in Christopher Woodward, In Ruins, 2002, p.167]

Perspective of the ruins adjacent to Pitzhanger Manor, George Basevi, 1810 Sir John Soane's Museum

Perspective of the ruins adjacent to Pitzhanger Manor, George Basevi, 1810
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sadly the ruins were demolished by the next owner to make way for a coal store – Sic transit gloria mundi!   All that remains are these romantic images although Julian Harrap, the architectural practice working on the restoration, say that a few parts of the structure still exist to this day and are in storage at the Manor.

Perspective view of the ruins, c1802-04,   Sir John Soane's Museum,

Perspective view of the ruins, c1802-04,
Sir John Soane’s Museum,

The temple ruins were not the end of Soane’s obsession. He also wrote Crude Hints Towards the History of My House,in which he imagined an archaeologist  inspecting the remains of his ruined home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and asking if they had found fragments of  a monastery, a classical temple, a magician’s lair, or the house of a persecuted artist?  Of course, given the scope of his collection the future historian would have been right on every count.    Famously Soane even had his own vast Bank of England building painted as an imagined ruin.

An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins,  Joseph Michael Gandy 1830,  Sir John Soane's Museum

An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins, Joseph Michael Gandy
1830,
Sir John Soane’s Museum

For greater insight into this see Visions of ruin: architectural fantasies and designs for garden follies, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Soane Museum in 1999.

sketches by Soane for the design of the entrance gateway to Pitzhanger, 1800. Sir John Soane's Museum

sketches by Soane for the design of the entrance gateway to Pitzhanger, 1800.
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Despite all this lavish attention to detail Pitzhanger was never really a home.   It served mainly  as a place of entertainment, and it was rare for the Soanes or their guests to  stay overnight there. The house and its grounds also had to promote his social and professional status to his clients.   From the grand  porticoed entrance, through the ruins in the grounds, the classical references in the building itself Soane did what he always did brilliantly: he manipulated scale both internally and externally. The result was to make a comparatively small-scale villa and its grounds convey a sense of distinction and style  to thoroughly impress the viewer.

 

Birds eye view of PItzhanger, with the ruins on the right

Birds eye view of Pitzhanger, with the ruins on the right

Pitzhanger initially had another purpose: a dynastic one.  Soane’s ‘object in purchasing these premises was to have a residence for myself and family, and afterwards my eldest son.’ Unfortunately John junior was sickly and although he trained as an architect, had no real interest in following in his father’s footsteps, whilst George was wayward, ill-tempered and violent and eventually estranged from Soane.

Plan of the estate when it was sold in 1832

Plan of the estate when it was sold in 1832

It was clear neither wanted the house nor its associations, and so in 1810, when it was hardly  finished, and his wife Eliza was in poor health, Pitzhanger was sold.

View within the curtyard of the ruins as if restored, c.1832, Charles Richardson, British Library

View within the courtyard of the ruins as if restored, c.1832, Charles Richardson,
British Library

 

 

Strangely, although he no longer owned it,  Soane himself stayed emotionally linked to Pitzhanger and continued to write about it.

 

When the estate was sold again in 1832 he commissioned his assistant, Charles Richardson to do a series of paintings of the ruins, and then reimagine them as excavation sites or if fully restored.

View of the ruins as if excavated, Charles Richardson, 1832 Britsih Library

View of the ruins as if excavated, Charles Richardson, 1832
British Library

View of the ruins 'as they are', Charles Richardson 1832, British Library

View of the ruins ‘as they are’, Charles Richardson 1832,
British Library

There are articles by Bianca De Divitiis [listed at the end of the post] which show how he set aside the true history of the house and instead  created a new history for it that placed it firmly in a national stylistic architectural chronology as shown in  his 1833 book Plans, Elevations and Perspective Views of Pitzhanger Manor-House.    

Perspective of the ruins adjacent to Pitzhanger Manor, from the east, Charles Richardson 1832 Sir John Soane's Museum shows a sarcophagus-like object, surmounting the triumphal arch structure, with tall finials at each corner, with canopy dome caps. It seems as if Soane was trying to suggest that the ruins were a source for, or even an integrated part of the architectural vocabulary for the rest of the house.

Perspective of the ruins adjacent to Pitzhanger Manor, from the east, Charles Richardson
1832
Sir John Soane’s Museum

Marion Harney in her new book, Gardens and Landscape in Historic Building Conservation, (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)  highlights the significance of Pitzhanger and its landscape.  It is she says, “a rare survival of Regency villa in its landscape, which is largely intact… There seem to be few surviving comparisons, although the exceptional design of Pitzhanger suggests comparison with sites such as the Deepdene in Surrey and Brighton Royal Pavilion rather than more modest villas.” In particular “the association with John Haverfield is of greater significance than previously understood; this is one of own of only two or three known surviving landscapes by him – a designer who enjoyed greater stature than previously known.” [p.132]

The gated entrance to Pitzhanger,  C.J. Richardson, 1832 Sir John Soane's Museum

The gated entrance to Pitzhanger, C.J. Richardson, 1832
Sir John Soane’s Museum

For more information on Soane, Pitzhanger and Walpole Park see:

http://www.soane.org

http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/3408/summary

http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.asp?ID=EAL055

http://www.pitzhanger.org.uk

The Bianca Divitiis articles referred to in the post are:  ‘Plans, elevations and perspective views of Pitzhanger Manor-House’, pp.55-74, The Georgian Group Journal , XIV, 2004;  and  ‘A newly discovered volume from the office of Sir John Soane’, pp. 180-198, The Burlington Magazine CXLV, March 2003. There is a full architectural bibliography for Pitzhanger at:

http://www.jeromeonline.co.uk/drawings/index.cfm?display_scheme=620

View of the rear of the house, showing George Dance's wing with the addition of one bay. Plate VIII from Soane's Plans, elevations and perspecyive views of PItshanger Manor-house, 1832   Britsih Library

View of the rear of the house, showing George Dance’s wing with the addition of one bay. Plate VIII from Soane’s Plans, elevations and perspective views of Pitzhanger Manor-house, 1832 British Library

 

I’ll return to Soane and his other interests in gardening and garden design shortly……

 

 

 

 

drawing selected for Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing; Conjectural East and West elevations as Sir John Soane, 1800-1810, Julain Harrap. http://www.e-architect.co.uk/architects/julian-harrap-architects

drawing selected for Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition
Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing; Conjectural East and West elevations as Sir John Soane, 1800-1810, Julian Harrap.
http://www.e-architect.co.uk/architects/julian-harrap-architects

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