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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
For more information on Soane, Pitzhanger and Walpole Park see:
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:
I’ll return to Soane and his other interests in gardening and garden design shortly……