The hypothesis of this essay is that the genre of architecture that has become known as the Soane Style is the product of not just one man’s thinking but two. Both architects had commissions built in Northern Ireland. In a reflection of their work at Pitzhanger Manor, Sir John Soane’s effort is a showpiece still in existence while George Dance’s building has been considerably altered. Soane will be forever remembered for the main block of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution which starred as a police station in TV series The Fall. Although the executed plan was greatly simplified from original grandiose proposals it nevertheless exhibits his trademark blind arches and pilaster strips.
Meanwhile at Mount Stewart in Greyabbey, a National Trust house, the straightforward neoclassicism of Dance’s wing may only just be discerned under the veil of a later remodelling. Owner Lady Mairi Bury, an aunt of Jemima Khan’s mother Lady Annabel Goldsmith née Vane-Tempest-Stewart, lived on in the house until her recent demise. As a teenager Lady Mairi met Hitler (“a nondescript person”) and Himmler (“like a shop walker in Harrods”).
The combination of the architects’ talents climaxes at Pitzhanger Manor. This erection was Soane’s country home in then rural Ealing and is now a council owned museum and art gallery. When the Soane Style peaked to maturity circa 1800 it proved to be a progressive form of architecture free in proportion and liberated in structural adventurousness, unconstrained by complete classical correctness. The 15 year period centred on the turn of the 19th century found Soane’s creative juices overflowing and coincides with the time he enjoyed his full blown friendship with Dance.
Pitzhanger Manor illustrates the overlap between their development of ideas and innovations. The three elements under scrutiny in this essay are the cross vault ceiling as in the library; the pendentive dome as in the breakfast room; and the top lit lantern such as that in the staircase hall. Here goes.
In Soane’s work the cross vault ceiling first appears in the ground floor rear sitting room of his townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, built in 1792 and also now a museum. Dance uses a similar ceiling type at Cranbury Park in Northamptonshire a decade earlier. Its geometry is complex: a cross vault with the interpenetrations cut back to produce triangular chamfers which widen towards the apex of the ceiling where the ends meet to form four sides of a square.
They likely both saw in this pattern a touch of gothic romance. The flying lines radiating from the corners of the room to the centre represent a reinterpretation of a ribbed vault. Soane developed this idea in his design for the Privy Council Chamber completed in 1824, where the motif is introduced as a canopy detached from the sides of the walls to allow natural light to filter from above.
The innovative design of Dance’s Guildhall Common Council Chamber of 1777 provides an aesthetic forerunner of what is often considered peculiar to the Soane Style. This square hall, demolished in 1906, boasted a pendentive dome. It consisted of a continuous spherical surface rather than one rising from separate pendentives like more conventional neoclassical domes. In the Guildhall the continuity of surface is not explicitly obvious because Dance introduced decorative spandrils which produced a scalloped effect resembling the inside of an umbrella.
Fourteen years later, Soane adopted the pendentive dome for his own use in the drawing room of Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, where he repeated the Guildhall’s scalloped effect, and a year later at the Bank of England’s Stock Office. Just when an impression is forming that the pendentive dome was a one way inspirational mode Soane snatched from Dance, it becomes apparent that the two architects assumed unity of views since Dance designed a pendentive dome for Lansdowne House which was contemporaneous with the Bank Stock Office. The design of the junction between the hall and the domed space in Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, is exactly comparable with Dance’s initial scheme for the Bank Stock Office which also incorporates semicircular windows over segmental arches.
Picturesque top lit lanterns which originated for practical reasons at the Bank Stock Office became an integral component of the Soane Style. Soane was faced with the problem of how to produce effective top lighting and there is evidence that he consulted his confidante because the initial sketches are in Dance’s hand. The first study is inspired by the Basilica of Constantine and the Diocletian Baths, appropriate sources of inspiration for any neoclassical architect. But Dance chose to modify the Roman prototype. Instead of the heavily mullioned windows of the originals he introduced fully glazed half moons which Soane incorporated into his final proposals for the Bank Stock Office.
Top lit lanterns appear in buildings throughout the remainder of Soane’s career including his Dulwich Picture Gallery. He continued to use and interpret these three motifs, the cross vault ceiling, the pendentive dome and the top lit lantern, after his initial efforts with Dance. Combined with his prolific output, this cemented the association of the style with his name rather than Dance’s.
It is not suggested in this essay that any of Soane’s architecture is interchangeable with Dance’s but rather that the Soane Style was developed through their exchange of design concepts. Soane’s main contribution is a novel handling of proportion coupled with highly idiosyncratic applied decoration while many of the basic constituents of the style may be credited to Dance. In his lifetime Soane never ceased to acknowledge indebtedness to his “revered master” while Dance wrote to his pupil “you would do me a great favour and a great service if you would let me look at your plan… I want to steal from it”.
The ongoing restoration of Pitzhanger Manor not only highlights Soane at his most individualistic but also reveals the more conventional neoclassicism of the south wing which was Dance’s first attempt at a country house, before he aided the younger architect in the development of what was to become known as the Soane Style.
2 replies on “Pitzhanger Manor London + Sir John Soane”
Really interesting and well researched piece – well done. Must definitely show you our work on the House and grounds next time you’re in the ‘hood. Be interested to get your view.
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