This exhibition deployed a selection from the Soane Museum’s outstanding collection of architectural drawings, paintings, and other archives to explore a multifaceted theme. That theme, the relationship between the designers of buildings and those they serve, is of course central to the discipline of architectural history. In an absorbing and informative display, the exhibition shed much light, with material stretching coverage from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. It will come as no surprise, however, that the focus was principally on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on Soane himself, the Adam brothers, and, to a lesser extent, their contemporaries. The exhibition thus implicitly dealt with professionalization, the shifting toward fixity in that period of the figure of the architect, for whom certain modes of conduct were appropriate and toward whom clients were meant to behave in certain ways.
Material from around 1600 by John Thorpe stood confusingly apart from the rest of the display. The presentational significance of early uses of perspective was explained, but there was no client in this case; rather, what was shown was Thorpe’s imagining of Wollaton Hall recast on the plan of his own initials. Otherwise there was great clarity to the organization of the exhibition. The introduction posed a number of basic questions about the nature of the architect–client relationship that were addressed through ten subthematic sections: “Commissioning Buildings,” “The Longstanding Client,” “Soane as His Own Architect,” “The State as Client,” “The Difficult Client,” “The Posthumous Client,” “Early Examples of Communicating with Clients,” “Marketing a Practice,” “Convincing the Public,” and “Tyringham: A Case Study.” Personal networks came early to the fore, with drawings for St Luke’s Hospital to illustrate both competitions and how they could be bypassed and, in a neat instance, a drawing for Soane’s Bank of England on the verso of which is another for William Pitt’s library at Holwood, to show how one commission leads to another. Other drawings for the Bank of England conveyed the vicissitudes and frustrations of a lengthy process. There was logic in the inclusion of Soane’s work for himself, in that Nos. 12–14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields constituted not just a home and office but also a “laboratory” and “Academy of architecture” designed with an eye toward impressing potential clients with the establishment’s great professionalism. A highlight of the exhibition was a drawing for the façade of No. 13 from 1812, the earliest to survive, proposing an attic replicating the Erechtheion’s caryatid porch. This was on public display for the first time, having been discovered in a picture frame in 2014. But however much Soane seems always to have been conscious of posterity (is that a client?), his villa at Pitzhanger and models for an unbuilt precursor at Acton, while intrinsically interesting, failed to convince as thematically relevant.
Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor made one of two cameo appearances with drawings for Greenwich Hospital, included to illustrate the state as a client. “Cumbersome committees” were cited, but there was no mention—an opportunity missed—of Wren’s great sagacity in getting the foundations for the whole complex laid in the early years of the project, in full knowledge that completion would take longer than he had to live. Subthematic overlap followed in the singling out of the Treasury as a difficult client. Soane was obliged to undertake “undecoration works” in the Privy Council Chamber, where his furnishings were disliked. This highlighted a general and, in this museum, probably inescapable imbalance in the presentation, favoring the point of view of the architect over that of the client. Soane called government officials “dilettante” for trying to impose their own tastes. What did they call Soane? There was an echo still of the romantic-modernist or Fountainhead myth—the architect as visionary genius blocked: if only other people would get out of the way.
The section on the subtheme of the posthumous client dealt with the curious case of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a mausoleum with an art gallery appended. In 1807 the artist Sir Francis Bourgeois commissioned Soane to design a mausoleum to commemorate his benefactor Noel Desenfans, a great collector of paintings. It was built in the Charlotte Street garden that Bourgeois and Desenfans had shared. Bourgeois died in 1811 and, as the terms of his will specified, Soane replaced the first mausoleum with another of similar form for both men at Dulwich, along with a large gallery to display the paintings from Desenfans’s collection. When Bourgeois’s endowment proved inadequate, Soane waived his fee and even offered to cover costs from his own pocket, a case perhaps of personal networks biting back.
The section on marketing a practice was dominated, not surprisingly, by Robert Adam. A preliminary sketch for and the corresponding published plate from The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam were nicely juxtaposed. It was also smartly pointed out that this publication was a marketing device intended to stave off bankruptcy. Fictive settings, such as the one depicted by William Chambers in his drawing of Melbourne House for the Royal Academy, came in under the subtheme of convincing the public. Several color perspectives by Joseph Michael Gandy epitomized such picturesque special effects and gave the exhibition as a whole a great aesthetic lift (Figure 1). The well-chosen Tyringham case study tracked a single commission through the 1790s, from opportunistic networking through modest and then more extensive works to postcompletion propagandistic Gandy presentation views meant to attract new clients. Here the models very much made sense.
Set apart, downstairs in Soane’s Breakfast Room at No. 12, there was a coda to the exhibition. This comprised a plan model of Soane’s Law Courts and Westminster Hall, Soane being said to be the first to use such a plan as an explanatory tool, next to—quite different yet tellingly similar, as much a jump forward as Thorpe’s book seemed a jump back—Grimshaw’s Animation for London Bridge Station and Passenger Interchange of 2012, an example, it was suggested, of “convincing the public” de nos jours. As someone who depends on passing through and changing trains at London Bridge Station on a daily basis, I must declare an interest. With works now disruptively under way, the blithe tabula rasa between the existing and the proposed was scary, and the complete elision of the unnecessary demolition of Charles Barry Jr.’s stringent South Eastern Railway Offices infuriating. At the end of this engrossing exhibition this film made one yearn for the innocence of Soane and Adam, crafty promoters though they were.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, Building a Dialogue: The Architect and the Client (London, 2015), online only, http://www.soane.org/u/page/On-Line%20Catalogue.pdf.