Architectural Monographs: John Soane
John Soane: The Making of an Architect
Is it coincidence that the two strangest and most original English architects had working-class, or at best lower-middleclass, origins? Nicholas Hawksmoor—Wren’s clerk, Vanbrugh’s shadow and mentor, but in the opinion of some a greater architect than either of them—was the son of a Nottinghamshire small-holder. John Soan was the son of a bricklayer, and may have worked as a bricklayer’s assistant in his boyhood. Pierre du Prey, in the book under review, describes his slow and painful metamorphosis into Sir John Soane, architect to the Bank of England and the doyen of his profession.
Hawksmoor’s rise was less surprising because in his day architecture was not yet a clearly defined profession, and there were many routes into it. Inigo Jones, after all, had been the son of a clothworker, trained as a painter. By the time Soane was growing up in the 1760s, architecture was fast hardening into a profession, a professional was a gentleman, and it was not easy for someone with no money and without the least pretensions to gentility to become an architect, still less a successful one; since Soane, no other English architect of equivalently humble origins has risen so far.
Two obvious and opposing courses were open to a working-class boy who wanted to get to the top. He could either take on the habits and beliefs of the upper classes with such enthusiasm that he became an indistinguishable member of them, or he could set out to break the established order. Soane did both, which may help to explain the nervous irritability, coming near at times to madness, that marked his later career. Superficially he became a professional man, a gentleman, and the heir and supporter of the classical tradition which had dominated architecture for three hundred years. He was knighted, acquired a country estate and a coat of arms, and added an “e” to his surname to make it sound less plebeian. He was a member of the Academy, a collector of Greek and Roman antiquities, and the designer of grand public buildings layishly adorned with the apparatus of the five orders.
At the same time his most original and interesting buildings were completely at variance with the classical tradition—even with neoclassicism, in Soane’s day its latest and most radical manifestation. That he came from outside the establishment may have made him better able to question and break loose from its assumptions. Much of his detail was entirely personal, without historic precedent, idiosyncratic, and sometimes extremely eccentric. His buildings were, as a result, the object of much criticism, and criticisms sometimes extended into making fun of his origins. He was at all times punctilious, honorable, and reliable; he was supremely competent in the practical aspects of his craft. But he became prickly, at times splenetic, desperately sensitive to criticism, subject to persecution mania and bouts of depression; he could be a sore trial to his assistants, but they remained devoted to him.
The classical tradition in European architecture was essentially concerned with…
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