Happy Birthday Sir John Soane!

Today would have been Soane’s 260th birthday.  Acting Director Helen Dorey looks back at the ways in which he marked the occasion throughout his life.

John Soan (without an ‘e’) was born at Goring-on-Thames, near Reading, the son of a bricklayer, and Martha Marcy on 10 September 1753.  

I suspect that he would find some aspects of our birthday celebrations today surprising and certainly overly lavish, judging from what I have been able to find out about how he marked his own birthdays. 

As a fairly young man he must have had two glorious ones in 1778 and 1779 when he was on his grand tour round Europe – in Rome in 1778 'seeing and examining the numerous inestimable remains of Antiquity' and in 1779 in Venice, then as now one of the most romantic cities in Europe.  

He arrived back in England in June 1780 having cut short what should have been a three-year trip by one year on the promise of extensive work at Downhill in Northern Ireland for the mercurial Frederick Hervey, Earl-Bishop of Derry.  He went straight to Northern Ireland but in September, the month of his 27th birthday, he departed from Downhill after a 38 day stay with nothing but £30 to show for his efforts – the rest of his bill (£400) was never paid! 58 years later he wrote 'Experience … taught me how much I had overrated the magnificent promises and splendid delusions of the Lord Bishop of Derry'. What an utterly miserable birthday he must have had!

Portrait of Sir John Soane by Christopher Hunneman, painted in 1776. Soane holds a pair of dividers in his hand

Christopher Hunneman portrait of Soane as a young man, 1776 (P400)

Once poor Soane returned to London and established his own architectural practice we have little evidence about how he marked his birthdays apart from the entries in his notebooks (diaries) but these show ample evidence for what he called himself his ‘unfortunate attachment to architecture’ – he was plainly a workaholic! 

In many years there is no entry at all on 10 September.  We cannot be certain whether this means he simply didn’t note anything down or whether he chose not to work on that day so had no appointments to record.

The first record we have of what he actually did on one of his birthdays is on his 28th birthday in 1781, when he records that he was on a business trip to Hamels Park. 

In the year of his marriage to Eliza Smith, 1784 (they married on 21 August), his notebook entry for 10 September makes no mention of any celebration with his new wife but records him buying a dozen lead pencils and a book by Fanny Burney and arranging to make a Tea Chest for a client.  Perhaps the Fanny Burney volume was a gift for Eliza to mark the date?

There is no entry on 10 September 1789 when he and his wife were awaiting the birth of their younger son, George, born on the 28th of that month. Given the risks of childbirth in the early nineteenth century that may have been a birthday tinged with anxiety.  

In 1791 the next birthday entry we have simply notes baldly that one of Soane’s workmen, Henry Provis, showed him a ‘drawing of a skylight – half size’. The following year, 1792, he was working on a drawing for the front of the Organ for Bentley Priory. In 1797 he was at home working on drawings for the new 3 Per Cent Office at the Bank of England.

These entries set the tone for most of Soane’s life with endless notes of appointments, letters written, and places visited and no mention ever of the fact that September 10th was his birthday.

Drawing of antique fragments, by Charles Percier

Drawing of antique fragments, by Charles Percier (SM/48/5/5), presented to Soane as a birthday present

However, there are just a very few happy exceptions, as in 1794 when the entry reads ‘Money. Circus’. In that year his two sons, John and George, would have been 8 and almost 5 respectively and this may have been a family outing.  It cannot have been a show at the famous Astley’s Amphitheatre, because that had burned down just a few days before on August 16th! It was almost certainly Charles Hughes’ rival Royal Circus on the south bank of the Thames at Blackfriars Road, St George's Fields.  Hughes had run a circus there in the 1780s but after quarrels with his business partners it had fallen into decline. In 1792 he had accepted the job of buying horses for Count Orlov, the favourite of Empress Catherine the Great, and set off for St Petersburg with them, taking along circus horses and a troupe of performers. He returned to England the following year to regain possession of his Circus following a court case, renovated it and in 1794 advertised his troupe as ‘lately returned from Russia’. It was this new season that Soane and his family must have enjoyed on 10 September 1794. 

In 1796 (on a Saturday) Soane must have enjoyed a more restful birthday when he spent all day fishing at Pangbourne on the Thames. 

In 1803 he might have been in Margate with Mrs Soane. She was often there at that time of year enjoying a long summer break usually returning in October.

When Eliza Soane died in 1815 Soane went into a long period of depression. In his
1817 notebook against 10 September he notes for the first time, amidst appointments,
‘My Birth Day’.  Thereafter there are often exclamation marks next to the date - as in
the entry in 1818 which reads as follows:

!! an accursed day, my birth day.
Lord Car: at 10. met his Ly and Mr. Whitham, settled sundries.
At the Bank – Mr. Grote, Mr. Spiller dined here.  Went to Chelsea and from thence to the Bank.

Despite this unhappiness, Soane’s best birthday of all must have been in 1819 when he took a trip to Paris.  Whilst there, to mark his 66th birthday, he visited a canal and the Church of St. Eustache, and took a ride round the Boulevards after dinner. He was away for almost a month, drinking in the new architectural developments in the French capital and seeking out items connected with the Emperor Napoleon (by then in exile on St Helena) and Josephine, accompanied by his housekeeper Sally Conduitt and her husband and his pupil Henry Parke. 

In the 1820s Soane returned to his more usual pattern of spending his birthdays doing
work related things such as organising insurance for Bank of England buildings. 

In 1823 his entry reads:

Go to London by Brighton Coach to Elep:[ant] & C[astle] – got there by 4 o’c,[then] in car[riage]: to the Church from thence to the Courts, Dined alone, Salmon & mutton chop.

A day spent travelling on a public coach back to London (uncomfortable at the best of times), followed by two site visits and then dinner alone seems particularly dismal.

In 1827 he took a solitary ride round Fulham Fields (this would have been a carriage ride rather than an outing on horseback as by then Soane was 74!).

In 1830 and 1831 he at least had some company on his birthday, dining with his old friend and housekeeper Mrs Conduitt.

Two knitted purses, presented to Soane as a Christmas present

Two net purses made for Soane by his grand-daughters Elizabeth and Maria, Christmas 1829 (X304 - X305)

We do not know much about what birthday presents Soane received, although we do have in the collection two delightful purses netted by Soane’s granddaughters in the 1830s as Christmas presents to their grandfather.   The emphasis we place today on birthday gifts and Christmas presents in fact may originate in customs of the Victorian period and it is unclear how universal they were in the early 19th century.

To mark his 81st birthday in 1834, however, we do know that Soane was given two drawings by Charles Percier, the celebrated French neo-classical architect. These were given to him by Maria Denman, his sister-in-law and one of his oldest friends as well as being the adopted daughter of John Flaxman the sculptor, with whom Soane enjoyed a long and close friendship up until Flaxman’s death in 1826.  

On 12 September 1835, two days after his 82nd birthday, Soane took delivery of a copy of the pièce de resistance of any collection of books on Egypt – the Description de l’Égypte, 1809–29 – a monumental 20-volume record of thirty years’ French scholarship in the region, by Napoleon’s celebrated Egyptologist Dominique Vivant-Denon.  A present to himself perhaps?

The last diary entry for his birthday is on 10 September 1835 when Soane records spending four hours with his book printer working on the design for his last Description of his house: one of three lavish volumes published privately in 1830, 1832 and finally January 1836. It seems very appropriate that his final birthday entry should show him working on such a vital part of his legacy to the nation.

Posted on 10 September 2013 in Announcements
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