Meeting His Imperial Majesty, 200 Years Ago
200 years ago today John Soane was presented to Alexander I, Emperor of Russia writes Sue Palmer, the Museum’s Archivist.
With our new exhibition Peace Breaks Out! marking 200 years since the fall of Napoleon, opening in just over a week, it seemed appropriate to also mark 200 years to the day that Soane met His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Russia.
In the summer of 1814, during the (premature) peace celebrations after the abdication and exile of Napoleon, the Prince Regent invited the Allied Sovereigns who had helped to subdue Napoleon to London to join the celebrations. On 6 June 1814, Alexander I, King Frederick William III of Prussia, William the Hereditary Prince of Orange and their generals and entourages departed from France, arriving in Dover the following day. Emperor Frances I of Austria did not attend, as he was preparing for the Congress of Vienna.
The Lothbury Arch through which the Emperor of Russia and his entourage entered the Bank (SM 12/3/13)
An elaborate programme of entertainments and visits was laid on for the royal visitors, chronicled in detail in The Gentleman’s Magazine (No.84 Pt 1) and various newspapers. One such visit, on Saturday 11 June, was to the Bank of England, where Soane had been Architect and Surveyor since 1788.
In the words of the correspondent of The Gentleman’s Magazine: ‘At about 11 o’clock the Emperor of Russia and the Duchess of Oldenburg, accompanied by the Prince of Orange, Count Lieven, Lord Yarmouth, and other distinguished characters, passed through the City, and alighted at the gate of the Bank in Lothbury. The Governor, Deputy-Governor and Directors conducted the visitors through the various departments of that extensive building. His Imperial Majesty listened with great attention to the explanations which were given of the several offices, and expressed much admiration at the systematic manner in which the business appeared to be conducted…’ The Morning Chronicle of 13 June 1814 adds the information that ‘The Emperor desired to see the able Architect, when Mr Soane was introduced to him by Mr Manning. He complimented Mr Soane in a very particular manner on the grandeur of the work, and shook him most cordially by the hand.’ The party partook of a cold collation and departed a little before two.
Bird’s-eye perspective of the Bank of England from the north, 1810, showing the size and complexity of the building (SM 1/8/12)
Soane had a further private audience with the Emperor, which he describes in his 1830 edition of the Description of his House and Museum: ‘When the Emperor Alexander was in England, I had the honour to be presented to His Imperial Majesty at the Bank, who, after expressing great approbation of that building, was pleased to command me to attend at the Pulteney Hotel with drawings of that great national structure. I took the opportunity of presenting other designs, which his Imperial Majesty accepted.’ According to Soane’s diary, the audience took place at 7.00 pm on Sunday 19 June, and he was accompanied by Samuel Thornton, one of the Directors of the Bank, and a client of Soane’s. ‘The Emperor examined all the drawings and then desired me to re-instate them [presumably in a portfolio] and leave them with Mons[ieur] – who attended at the door of the Anti-room.’
We hope that one day these drawings will be identified in a Russian collection.
Peace Breaks Out! London and Paris in the Summer of 1814 opens on 20 June and runs until 13 September. Entry is free. A fully-illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and can be purchased from the Soane Shop or online. #PeaceBreaksOut