Sir John Soane and eclecticism in British architecture

This post emerged following discussions that Rosalind and I have had about the remarkable English architect Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837). The conversation began quite by accident when she mentioned Pitzhanger Manor to me in an email a few weeks ago. Having demolished the existing building on the site, retaining an extension by George Dance, Soane set out to design a building as a reflection of his unique architectural style. The new manor was completed to Soane’s designs in 1804. While the manor was partially restored in the nineteen eighties to Soane’s design, having changed hands a number of times as well as serving as Ealing’s public library, plans for a full restoration are on track to begin in 2015. We decided to share our thoughts on the architecture of Soane, the context for his varied architectural style, and the rise of eclecticism in nineteenth century architecture.

To begin, we present a few thoughts on the façade of Pitzhanger Manor. It sits discreetly near the centre of Ealing, in Walpole Park and just a glance at the front façade is outstandingly ‘Soane’ in character, with classical elements prominently featured. What is notable is the playfulness in Soane’s approach to combining these elements – in general classical and Neoclassical architects sought to follow the rules, or grammar, of Classicism more closely.

Front façade of Pitzhanger Manor.
Front façade of Pitzhanger Manor.

The four Ionic columns, instead of supporting a pediment and ultimately the roof of the building, are topped with a cornice and statues, similar to caryatids. Interestingly, each one is in the same pose – a reflection, perhaps, of the obsession with symmetry found in much of the architecture of the time. The caryatids of Greek antiquity were normally carved in slightly different poses. Behind each statue, a shadow of the columns continues up the façade as pilasters; simplified, squared off, and closer to Doric in form. Between each of these there is a frieze, depicting two lions on the outside facing in towards a central image of a child. The lions in particular catch the eye as they are inset and framed with a circle of brickwork, radically different in style compared to traditional classical and Neoclassical architecture. Finally, further breaking with classical tradition, the façade ‘touches the sky’ with a low parapet of stone balusters. This, we feel, adds to the aesthetic charm and intrigue of the architecture.

Soane’s architectural ‘style’ would most broadly be termed Neoclassical, but this isn’t strictly accurate – his work is not nearly ‘polite’ enough to truly be Neoclassical. Allow us to draw on two influences that we believe to be central to Soane’s highly imaginative style of architecture: the French philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier, and the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Summerson touches on this idea in his book The Classical Language of Architecture, we wish to explore it a little further.

Classicism and the Greek revival

For those unfamiliar with Classical architecture, it’s worth noting that not all Classicism is the same. The Greek orders of column are more slender than the Roman equivalents, the nature of the pediment varies, as does the fluting of the columns. Renaissance Classicism that emerged around the time of the Quattrocento in Italy was in effect a revival of this earlier Roman and Greek aesthetic. At the time when Soane was designing his masterpieces, there was something of a Greek revival going on in England – arguably the influence of Laugier’s seminal essay on architecture (1753). In this essay Laugier argues for ‘purity’ in architecture, a new primitivism free from the indulgence of Baroque ornamentation in architectural expression.

These ideas, while not hugely influential in England, did pave the way for a new freedom in the expression of architecture. A freedom that is perhaps most notably expressed in the work of John Soane. This is an important point – the freedom to break with tradition – in understanding Soane’s work.

Piranesi and the intrigue of the ancient

It took however, more than a freeing from the shackles of architectural tradition to evoke the type of creative architecture that Soane created. While his work makes no strict adherence to the principles of any Classical style, there is an obvious classical influence from Greek, Roman, and Renaissance works. Soane had some experience of these architectures, having undertaken a tour of Europe prior to commencing his career as an architect. This broadening of horizons undoubtedly had a significant impact on the society and culture of the day, however we want to focus specifically on Piranesi and his extraordinary drawings of antiquity.

Etching of the Colosseum, Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Etching of the Colosseum, Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi’s drawings perhaps epitomise this new learning from Europe and from history. The subject matter, the dramatic compositions, and the somewhat romanticised view of great civilisations of the past, very much reflect the public attitude of the time. It is striking that Soane acquired 15 drawings by Piranesi, an astonishing collection depicting some of the key buildings from antiquity in exquisite detail. Soane’s knowledge of antiquity, of the grammar of Classicism available to him, were fundamental to the emergence of his uniquely eclectic style; and are fundamental to our understanding of his architecture today.

John Soane and the architecture of eclecticism

Sir John Soane
Painting of Sir John Soane, Thomas Lawrence

Freedom for the creation of new architecture, the Enlightenment and learning from the past, and knowledge of the aesthetic value of each element of Classical architecture. This mix of ideas matched with Soane’s creativity, intellect, and somewhat prodigious skill as an architect, led to the unique architecture of Soane that we enjoy so much today. He accepted the freedoms of moving away from the rules of expression and he sought answers from the historical; but he chose the expression of his architecture not as a recreation of antiquity or with the sentimentality that can often be associated with Neoclassical architects. Instead Soane selected Classical elements for their aesthetic and symbolic value and appropriateness to his architectural purpose, bringing them together in an eclectic, but beautifully harmonious, architecture.

Unfortunately his work on the Bank of England, probably his most significant building, has largely been destroyed. Thankfully buildings such as Pitzhanger Manor, the Soane House, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery are preserved in remarkable condition. They’re all well worth visiting when in London.

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