Past Exhibitions

Visions of World Architecture John Soane’s Royal Academy Lecture Illustrations

An Exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 12 January to 28 April 2007

The Soane Museum is pleased to announce a new exhibition dedicated to a series of remarkable drawings produced by Soane to illustrate his Royal Academy lectures between 1809 and 1820. These coloured illustrations, beautifully rendered by pupils from his own office, and spanning subjects ranging from pre-history to the latest buildings of Regency London, offer a fascinating insight into Soane's architectural mind.

Following his election as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane set about preparing a series of lectures to be given each year, a requirement of this office. These lectures were intended 'to form the taste of the Students' and in order to elucidate his theoretical points Soane commissioned over 1,000 spectacular watercolour drawings. These drawings, rendered by pupils from Soane's own architectural practice, presented a unique record of world architecture and, for many, were the most appealing part of the lectures.

During the preparation of these illustrations Soane's crowded drawing office, not a large space, must have resembled something between a prison and a factory. His pupils were required to work for twelve hours a day and some of the drawings took weeks to complete. Nonetheless, this costly and labour-intensive exercise, subsidised by Soane, amounted to an extremely public spirited gesture. The resulting watercolours provided a rich visual source for his architectural students and were admired as fine works of art in their own right.

Although the drawings are rarely signed, thanks to the office day books it has been possible to identify the names of many of the pupils who undertook this painstaking work for Soane. Their drawings were in three main groups: first, those based on engravings from architectural folios on Soane's shelves, notably Piranesi; then, those drawn by pupils on many site visits in London; finally, a large number were based on Soane's designs and on drawings by earlier architects in his collection. Since Soane illustrated work by almost every major architect of his day, especially in London, it is astonishing that he included nothing whatever by his prolific rival, John Nash, a striking consequence of jealousy but doubtless also of his low opinion of Nash's skills.

Nothing like these drawings and the vision of world architecture that lay behind them had appeared before, nor would again until the parallel but visually unappealing technique of Banister Fletcher in his celebrated History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (1896). Though the complete text of Soane's lectures is immensely long, sometimes repetitive, and occasionally even tedious, it contains many provocative and unexpected passages, clarified and enlivened by his wonderful illustrations.

This exhibition will showcase 34 of Soane's most beautiful and important lecture illustrations. The curator is the leading architectural historian Professor David Watkin, author of Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (1996). In addition to the paperback of this volume, a six-page colour guide with a text by David Watkin will accompany the exhibition.