Past Exhibitions

A Passion for Building: The Amateur Architect in England 1650-1850

An exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 18 May to 1 September 2007

Sir John Soane's Museum is pleased to announce a new exhibition exploring the great English tradition of the amateur architect. The exhibition will celebrate the most gifted, inventive and eccentric amateurs of the 18th and early 19th centuries with a selection of drawings, engravings and portraits gathered from Soane's collection and other museums, archives and private houses around the country. Thanks to a grant from the Designation Challenge Fund the exhibition will travel to two other regional venues during 2007 and 2008 including Fairfax House, York, from March to June 2008.

'In England more than in any other country, every man would fain to be his own architect,' remarked the Swiss J A Rouquet in 1755. He was referring to a unique European situation, where a growing number of English gentlemen, having found inspiration in architectural books and Continental travel, were turning their hands to design. Thomas Worsley (1711-78) was the epitome of this new breed of amateur. When appointed in 1760 by George III to the political post of Surveyor General of the Royal Works, Worsley's love of building was matched only by his passion for horses. He rebuilt his Hovingham Hall in Yorkshire so that his guests would enter through a grand riding school attached to stables.

Many other amateur designs were destined to remain on paper, and as the hors d'oeuvre to this exhibition, the museum is proud to show for the first time the spectacular 6 foot-long drawing for the extraordinary 'Porticus', intended for the Thames-side garden of Salisbury House, one of the great Tudor palaces that used to line the Strand. Designed by a courtier Sir John Osborne (c.1550-1628) c.1610, if built it would have been the most impressive garden building in England, a viewing platform in the guise of a 70 foot-long Roman temple, of a classical purity preceding anything by Inigo Jones.

The exhibition identifies pockets of the country, such as Oxford and Yorkshire, where the influence of amateurs was particularly effective. Two Oxford dons passionate about classical architecture, Henry Aldrich (1648-1710) and George Clarke (1661-1736) advised on nearly every major building project that the University undertook in the early 18th century. Aldrich may be said to have initiated a true Palladian revival. In Yorkshire several talented amateurs were active in the mid-eighteenth century, including Worsley and Robinson, as well as Robinson's son, Earl de Grey (1781-1859), whose right to be seen as the President of England's first professional Institute of Architects, is bolstered by his delicately-coloured drawing of the French-style fantasy house he built for himself at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. The exhibition is full of great personalities, including the eccentric pugilist parson Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741) who built Bunny Hall, Nottinghamshire in a wild Baroque style; Ada Augusta Byron, Lady Lovelace, only daughter of the poet, and one of the pioneers of computer science and architect of Ashley Combe, a romantic rambling antique Roman retreat on a Somerset cliff top; or the fabulous Sarah Losh, whose church, cemetery, and mausoleum at Wreay in Cumbria raise her to the heights of genius and invention.

This exhibition will showcase over 30 drawings, engravings, portraits and books. The curator and author of the catalogue is the distinguished architectural historian John Harris, the leading authority on English 18th-century architecture, assisted by Robert Hradsky. The exhibition was instigated by the late Dr Giles Worsley and will be affectionately dedicated to his memory.

This exhibition and tour is supported by the Designation Challenge Fund with additional sponsorship from E Fuller and Son, a long-established building firm specialising in the repair of historic buildings.

A 36-page, full-colour exhibition catalogue is available from the Museum Shop.