Basic Biographical Details

Name: Sir John Soane
Designation: Architect
Born: 10 September 1753
Died: 20 January 1837
Bio Notes: John Soane was born on 10 September 1753, the son and seventh and youngest child of John Soan, bricklayer at Goring-on-Thames, near Reading, and his wife Martha Mercy. In 1784 he changed his name to Soane as part of the deliberate improvement of his status as he was very conscious of his humble origins. He was probably educated at William Baker’s school in Reading. In 1768 he entered the office of George Dance the younger, the London City Surveyor, probably through James Peacock to whom he had been introduced by a family member. The position in Dance’s office was advantageous to Soane’s career. Dance and his elder brother were founder members of the Royal Academy and in October 1771 Soane entered the Royal Academy Schools. Soane believed that the connection to the Royal Academy was important to him as it sent him on the Grand Tour and introduced him to potential clients.

In 1772 he found part-time work with Henry Holland who had recently established his practice in Mayfair. Soane subsequently claimed to have been responsible for the design of the entrance hall of Claremont House for Lord Clive, the commission being currently undertaken by Holland.

Soane’s design for ‘The Front of a Nobleman’s House’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1772 and a measured drawing of the Banqueting House in Whitehall earned him a Silver Medal. After an unsuccessful competition entry in 1774 for the Gold Medal, in 1776 he was awarded it for the design of a triumphal bridge. In 1777 Soane exhibited an ambitious scheme for a Mausoleum for James King, a friend who had died in a boating accident. The design owed much to the French academician Marie-Joseph Peyre. That year Soane prepared a book of his own designs, mainly for garden buildings, which was published in 1778.

Soane absorbed various ideas from the people he became acquainted with at the Academy – for example Thomas Sandby and William Chambers, the latter believing in the superiority of French architecture and the importance of a study tour in Italy. Soane was one of the first recipients of the King’s Travelling Scholarship with which he went to Italy.

Soane set out on the Grand Tour on 18 March 1778 after terminating his employment with Holland. He carried with him a letter of advice from Chambers. Besides studying the architectural monuments in Rome, Soane made the acquaintance of, among others, Philip Yorke, later third Earl of Hardwicke, Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford and of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry who gave him copies of Vitruvius’s ‘De Architectura’ and of Palladio’s ‘I Quattri Libri’. The bishop promised work designing country houses for him in Suffolk and in Ireland and Soane cut short his stay in Rome to follow the Bishop to Ireland only to discover that these promises were not fulfilled. Soane returned to England in June 1780 and after a further abortive commission for John Stuart at Allanbank near Berwick, obtained some modest jobs mainly in East Anglia which established him in practice. He also designed a dairy and lodges for Philip Yorke. The dairy (built 1783) was a rustic building with a thatched roof and was based on the ideas in Marc-Antoine Laugier’s ‘Essai sur l’architecture’ which Soane followed fanatically. He also frequently read the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with whom he identified emotionally as a solitary and sensitive victim of persecution. In 1784 he was sufficiently well-off to marry Elizabeth Smith, a niece of the wealthy builder George Wyatt, to whose property he succeeded in 1790.

As a result of this inheritance, Soane bought and rebuilt 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a family home, with an architectural office at the back. He acquired the adjacent houses, number 13 and 14 in 1808 and 1823 respectively and lived in different parts of the houses at different times as his collection of antiquities, painting and books expanded. He had collected architectural drawings, models and casts, as well as paintings, sculpture and all sorts of antiquities all his life. The decoration of the interiors broke with tradition. He introduced graining for the woodwork and painted the walls of the dining room Pompeian red after a scrap of painted plaster brought back from Pompeii. He also purchased Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing which had been extended by Dance. In 1801-3 he demolished the original building and rebuilt it while retaining the Dance additions. Soane believed that a building ‘like a historical picture should tell its own tale’. He would appear to have seen the house as a portrait of the owner of fragments of antique sculpture who wanted to try to preserve them from ruin by incorporating them into an Italian villa. In the grounds he constructed a series of imitation Roman ruins. The house was sold when Soane realised his sons had no interest or talent for architecture. He then concentrated his efforts on developing the house and collection at Lincoln’s Inn in particular the top-lit dome or museum at the rear of no.13.

In 1788 Soane had applied for the surveyorship of Greenwich Hospital but was not successful. However in October of that year he won the coveted position of architect to the Bank of England, with the support of William Pitt for whom Soane had recently worked at his house, Holwood in Kent. This was in the face of fierce competition from James Wyatt, Henry Holland and Samuel Pepys Cockerell, amongst others. This gave Soane financial security, status and a very significant commission as well as introducing him to some of his wealthiest clients. From this point he established a place among the leading English practices which was second only to that of James Wyatt. Further appointments followed. In 1791 he secured his first government appointment the post of Clerk of Works at Whitehall and St James’s (£300p.a.). In 1795 he was appointed Deputy Surveyor of Woods and Forests (£200p.a.) and in 1807 Clerk of the Works to Chelsea Hospital. In 1814 when the Board of Works was reorganised he became one of the three ‘attached’ architects with personal responsibility for public buildings in Whitehall, Westminster, Richmond Park, Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace. This continued until 1832 when his post was terminated on the amalgamation of the Office with the Department of Woods. Soane and the other two attached architects were awarded knighthoods. In 1833 Soane retired from the Bank of England post because of failing eyesight.

Soane had been elected ARA in 1795 and RA in 1802. He was appointed Professor of Architecture in 1806 in succession to George Dance. Soane considered this to be the pinnacle of his architectural career. From 1809 he delivered a series of lectures which were lavishly illustrated. He concentrated as much on what he believed was wrong with the work of past masters as what was right. He bemoaned the lack of grand public buildings in contemporary architecture unlike those which had been built in Paris. He continued to deliver these each year until the year before his death. He saw 12 Lincoln’s inn Fields as a demonstration of the history of architecture, set out for the benefit of students.

The lectures were suspended in 1810-11 when he was censured for criticising Robert Smirke’s Convent Garden Theatre, in the design of which, he believed, all the interest was focussed on the façade to the detriment of the other parts. Soane was committed to architectural education and took a great deal of trouble preparing his lectures. Through this and the way in which he influenced his pupils he did much to raise the standard of the profession. He was prevented by the rules of the Royal Academy from becoming president of the Institute of Architects. However Soane’s position as ‘father of the profession’ was recognised by the presentation to him of the Gold Medal on behalf of 350 subscribers. To acknowledge this honour he gave £5000 as a fund for distressed architects and their dependents. The same year he gave £750 to the Institute (which was used to create the Soane Medal award for students) and £250 to the Architectural Society in the hope that they could be combined.

Soane’s last years were spent writing a ‘Description’ of the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He left the property to the nation as a museum for ‘the study of Architecture and the Allied Arts’ obtaining an Act of Parliament to that effect in 1833. Soane died on 20 January 1837.

Soane was a difficult man, described by Colvin as ‘austere, exacting, touchy and neurotic’. The early death of his wife in 1815 continued to trouble him. His sons, who failed to follow their father into the profession, were a disappointment. However he was punctilious with his clients and drove himself and his assistant very hard in order to achieve distinction as an architect.

Although he was well versed in the conventions of classical architecture, Soane developed an individual style using classical idioms in his own individual way. He used this most effectively in interiors. He had a marked fondness for shallow domes associated with clerestory lighting. Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire for Philip Yorke was an early example in particular the top-lit T-shaped Yellow Drawing room. Yorke had commissioned Soane to make a drawing of the Corsini Chapel in San Giovanni Laterano in Rome which had a domed cruciform interior and this may have influenced his work at Wimpole. This was the first of a series of top-lit interiors (or interiors with concealed light) which Soane re-used many times throughout his career – for example at the Bank of England and at Lincoln’s Inn – to achieve the desired subtle effect. He also made extensive use of segmental arches and was ingenious in his planning especially in cases where the site was constricted.

In his interior decoration Soane was also individualistic. He eliminated the classical column and entablature and replaced them with linear decoration which was incised rather than raised. This was supplemented with the use of classical paterae and acroteria. He used these features in fully developed form in the Bank of England (1792 onwards) and also in the Picture Gallery in Dulwich (1811-14) where had to work to a very strict budget. Early on his ideas were influenced by those of George Dance. However he also drew inspiration from Pompeian and Gothic details in an attempt to create what he called ‘the poetry of Architecture’.

Soane's work at the Bank of England began in 1788 when he was first appointed as architect to the Bank. From his first major interior, the Stock Office of 1791-2 worked out with George Dance until the Four Per Cent office of 1820-24 he attempted to design rooms in which he could put his ideas of poetic architecture into practice. He also experimeted with new constructional techniques. Soane wanted the entrance to the Bullion Court to be the main public entrance but this remained on the south side. The Bullion Court entrance took the form of a triumphal rch, considered to be the first permanent triumphal arch in London. The north west corner of the building, the Tivoli corner, was based on the circualr temple at Tivoli and was probab;ly the fisat use in modern tomes of the rich Corinthina order found at this temple.

His unconventional approach resulted in criticism, in particular in an article entitled ‘The Sixth or Boetian Order of Architecture’ in the Knight’s Quarterly Magazine in 1824. However his attempt to develop a new language of classical architecture drawing from Greek, Roman and Italian and distilling them into something new was not imitated.

Many portraits of Soane are in the Soane Museum and a number in the Bank of England.


'Designs in Architecture, consisting of Plans, Elevations, and Sections for Temples, Baths, Cassines, Pavilions, Garden-Seats, Obelisks, and Other Buildings'. (1778) (commissioned by the published Isaac Taylor and re-issused by him in 1789, 1790 and 1797

'Plans, Elevations and Sections of Buildings erected in the Counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, etc, 1788' (actually 1789)

'Sketches in Architecture, containing Plans and Elevations of Cottages, Villas and other Useful Buildings' (1793, 2nd edition 1798)

'Designs for Public Improvements' (1827, 25 copies only). Reprinted with additions as 'Public and Private buildings' (1828, revised edition. 1832).

'Description of the House and Museum on the North Side of Lincoln's Inn Fields' (1832, enlarged version printed in 1835-6) (Privately printed)

'Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect' (1835) (Privately printed.

'Plans Elevations and Perspective Views of Pitzhanger Manor house' (1832) 8 pages of text.

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 2George Dance junior1768c. 1772Apprentice 
Item 2 of 2Henry Holland17721778Assistant 

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 31794Cairness House  AberdeenshireScotlandCompletion of house - provided drawings for porch
Item 2 of 31799Robert Dennistoun's House, Buchanan Street  GlasgowScotland 
Item 3 of 3180231 Miller Street  GlasgowScotlandRear extension


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 10APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 10Birnstingl, H J1925Sir John Soane   
Item 3 of 10Bolton, A T1924The Works of Sir John Soane   
Item 4 of 10Bolton, A T 1927Portrait of Sir John Soane   
Item 5 of 10Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th editionGives a full bibliography.
Item 6 of 10Dean, Ptolemy1996Soane Revisited Soane Gallery 
Item 7 of 10Dean, Ptolemy2006Sir John Soane and London   
Item 8 of 10New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  By David Watkin.
Item 9 of 10Richardson, Margaret and Stevens, MaryAnne (eds)1999John Soane, Architect London: Royal Academy 
Item 10 of 10Walker, David W and Woodworth, Matthew2015The Buildings of Scotland: Aberdeenshire North and Moray Yale University Pressp120

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Builder1846iv p577 List of works, etc by G Bailey

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 1RIBA Archive, Victoria & Albert MuseumRIBA Drawings Collection