The New State Paper Office

Drawings Cataloguer Tom Drysdale has recently finished cataloguing Sir John Soane’s drawings for the New State Paper Office, Soane’s final public building. Here, he highlights the significance of this building for which Soane adopted a completely new style of architecture.

In 1829 Soane was commissioned to build a New State Paper Office in Duke Street, Westminster. This was to be a purpose-built repository – the first such building in England – for the official papers of various governmental departments which until then had been kept in a dilapidated house in Great George Street. When that house began to subside the alarm was raised and Soane, as an Attached Architect to the Office of Works, was directed to make designs for the new building. The first designs were submitted to the Treasury in May 1829 but in June the decision was made to invite Soane’s fellow Attached Architects, John Nash (1752-1835) and Robert Smirke (1780-1867), also to submit designs for the new building. This unusual step was almost certainly taken in light of the 1828 Report of the Select Committee on the Office of Works which had been critical of the lack of competition in the designing of public buildings.

Design for the New State Paper Office, nearly as executed

Nevertheless, Soane’s revised design was approved, but not before he had been forced to make further alterations. Yet again with Soane’s public work a government official was determined to make his own mark on the building. This time it was Henry Goulburn (1784-1856), Chancellor of the Exchequer, who directed Soane to add two rows of pilasters to the elevations. Goulburn wasn’t the only one to interfere – Henry Bankes (1757-1834) sought to increase the height of the attic. At the New Law Courts, Bankes had caused Soane a great deal of misery by making the architect halt the construction of his neo-classical building and reface it in a gothic style. At the New State Paper Office, though, his suggestions were overruled. Nor were Goulburn’s pilasters present on the executed building.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the New State Paper Office is that it was built in a style never before practiced by Soane. The new building was based on the palazzo architecture of the Italian Renaissance. The bracketed cornice, channelled quoins, neat, horizontal rows of windows, rusticated basement and prominent entrance were all features of the palazzi that Soane had seen first-hand in Italy during his grand tour. It has been stated that Soane’s main inspiration was the Villa Farnese at Caprarola by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73), but there is little firm evidence to substantiate this claim. One part of the State Paper Office was explicitly Vignolan, though – the main entrance which, although modified by Soane to suit the scale of the new building, was taken from Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d'architettura (1562).

Design for the New State Paper Office with alterations as suggested by Henry Goulburn (SM 82/1/21)

Soane’s New State Paper Office was not particularly revolutionary in the practical aspects of its design. Indeed, Nash’s attempt was arguably more so – he had suggested that the book presses be made of incombustible materials (Bath stone with perforated iron or copper shelves) and proposed a system of heating the library with warm air similar to the method designed for the Edinburgh Register House by Robert and James Adam. But the real significance of the new building rested on its external appearance. The New State Paper Office has been credited, alongside Charles Barry’s (1795-1860) Travellers Club, with introducing the palazzo style of architecture to London, a mode that would flourish in the nineteenth century in the guise of clubs, banks, townhouses and commercial premises.

The main entrance to the New State Paper Office, based on a design by Vignola (SM Vol. 61/91)

The reasons for Soane’s sudden stylistic change have never been satisfactorily determined, although various suggestions have been made. Arthur Bolton argued that he was inspired by the young Charles Barry. M. H. Port proposed that he was led towards an astylar composition by the mandate of making the building of brick with stone dressings. Most recently, David McKinstry has claimed that Soane wanted to emulate the architecture of Inigo Jones in the continuation of a ‘national tradition’. The Soane Office drawings for the New State Paper Office have now been catalogued and may hold the key to answering this question. One thing that is for certain is that the New State Paper Office cements Soane’s reputation as an innovative and progressive designer operating at the forefront of architecture in his period.

The New State Paper Office was demolished in 1862 to make way for the new Foreign and India Offices.

The Museum is currently in the process of upgrading its online collections and the catalogue of the drawings for the New State Paper Office will be one of the first schemes to become available when the new site is launched. In the meantime the drawings are available to view on request by contacting (this email requires javascript) and the existing catalogue remains available at

The New State Paper Office has been catalogued as part of Money, Power and Politics, a two-year project to catalogue Soane’s drawings for public buildings made in his role as an Attached Architect to the Office of Works. The project is funded by the Pilgrim Trust and the cataloguers are Tom Drysdale and Jill Lever.

Posted on 13 November 2014 in Looking at Drawings
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