Soane and Downing Street

Home to the British Prime Minister, Downing Street is one of the most well-known streets in the world. Soane Drawings Cataloguer Tom Drysdale has been cataloguing Sir John Soane’s designs for alterations to numbers 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street, and his research saw him visit the famous 'No. 10' to see what remains of Soane's work. Here he discusses one of the more intriguing drawings in the Soane Museum’s collections.


In 1824 Soane was asked to make alterations to Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street, a commission that came through his role as an Attached Architect to the Office of Works. The remit was to provide a new dining room and ante room befitting the status and importance of No. 10 and to reflect increasing national prosperity under the later Liverpool Ministry. No. 11 was also to be provided with a new dining room and merged with the neighbouring No. 12 to increase accommodation.

The Soane Museum has 22 drawings relating to 10-12 Downing Street. Three of these predate Soane’s work and show the alterations made to the houses by Sir Robert Taylor in 1781-3. The other 19 drawings consist of surveys and designs for alterations. The most interesting of these is a set of interior perspectives and plans for the ceiling of the State Dining Room (below). On 3 July 1825 Soane 'attended the Ch. of the Exchequer [Frederick John Robinson (1782-1859) with] 2 fair plans & two perspective views of the new eating room & anti room (sic) proposed to be made in his house.'* The Chancellor was therefore provided with a choice; the story behind this drawing proves why this was such an interesting move by Soane.

Soane’s drawing of designs for the ceiling of the new State Dining Room at 10 Downing Street
Soane’s drawing of designs for the ceiling of the new State Dining Room at 10 Downing Street (SM 50/4/14)


Soane and Robinson had a somewhat troubled recent history. At the Board of Trade building on Whitehall then being built by Soane for the Treasury, Robinson had repeatedly interfered with the design. Firstly, he had insisted that all of the columns in the front colonnade should be ¾ engaged rather than isolated (i.e. detached) from the façade. Robinson’s argument was that Soane’s columns were ‘intended to be so near to [the wall] that there would be scarcely room for anyone to pass between the columns and the wall; so that it would have had the appearance only but not the reality of a colonnade’, a deception to which he objected. Secondly, the Chancellor had expressed his distaste for the order of the Corinthian columns, which were based on that of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and instead directed that they should be based on the order of the Temple of Jupiter Stator. The Tivoli order, he claimed, was ‘universally deemed extremely defective from the dwarfish proportions of its capital’, whereas that of the Temple of Jupiter Stator was ‘allowed to be amongst the finest specimens of the Corinthian order’. Soane’s patience, habitually in short supply, was severely tested and the project ended acrimoniously in 1828 when a Select Committee was summoned to conduct an inquiry into the project – its withering conclusion stated that ‘although [we] cannot clearly ascertain to whom the blame attaches, the system cannot be good which has produced such a result’.

It is with this episode in mind that the drawing for the ceiling of the new State Dining Room should be seen. Considering their strained relationship, it seems likely that Soane was covering himself by anticipating Robinson’s interference. The architect was offering the amateur a choice – albeit a limited one. The drawing shows four different types of ceiling: a shallow groin vault, a flat ceiling, a saucer dome and a shallow barrel vault. The first and third of these are considered Soane ‘trademarks’. Shallow domes were used to great effect at the Bank of England, and a variation on the groined ceiling – known as a ‘starfish’ vault – was used on numerous occasions, for example at Pitzhanger Manor and later in the new Privy Council Chamber. Notably, both types of ceiling can be found in the Soane Museum in the No. 12 and No. 13 breakfast rooms.

The ceiling executed by Soane at No. 10 most closely corresponds to the groin vault design, although it was a richly-decorated ‘starfish’ ceiling that was actually built (below). Another drawing in the Downing Street set shows an unfinished design for a ceiling of this type, although the executed ceiling varies in its decoration, with classic Soanean ball mouldings, Greek fret and foliate motifs. The shallow dome design on the ‘multiple choice’ drawing also managed to find its way into Downing Street in the new dining room designed by Soane for No. 11. As at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, this room is top-lit by skylights on either side of the dome in another display of Soane’s brilliant manipulation of light and space. A model for this ceiling can also be found in the Museum.

Photograph of the State Dining Room at 10 Downing Street, as it appears today
The State Dining Room, 10 Downing Street (photograph by author, 2013)

Previous accounts have suggested that the drawing discussed here was the one presented to Robinson, as recalled by Soane. Sadly, this is not the case. A note on another of the Downing Street drawings relates that the Chancellor ‘appr[ove]d Plan 2 & groined cieling (sic) No 3’. On the drawing presented here, however, the groined ceiling design is labelled ‘View No 2’. Furthermore, ‘Plan No 2’, which shows the groined ceiling design, and ‘View No 3’, showing a shallow dome, do not correspond. It is difficult to agree that this was a product of Robinson’s confusion, as has been suggested elsewhere. The drawing is quite clear, with the four plans directly beneath the relevant views. Finally there is Soane’s note which states that ‘2 fair plans & two perspective views’ were shown to the Chancellor for approval.

Nevertheless, this does not detract from the drawing’s extraordinariness or its uniqueness in showing four of Soane’s ceiling designs on one sheet. Nor does it take anything away from the fascinating story of Robinson and Soane’s strained relationship. It should be noted, perhaps, that Robinson did invite Soane to ‘a small party in my new room… that you may see how well it looks when lighted up’ in March 1826. Happily, Soane’s Downing Street interiors survive, much thanks to the restoration work carried out by Raymond Erith in the 1960s.

You can see the rest of Soane’s drawings for Downing Street here.

*The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (1770-1828), preferred to stay at his own residence, Fife House, nearby on Whitehall. No. 10 was therefore occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick John Robinson (1782-1859), while No. 11 was occupied by Stephen Lushington (1776-1868), Joint Secretary to the Treasury.

The drawings for 10-12 Downing Street have been catalogued as part of ‘Money, Power and Politics: Sir John Soane’s Architecture for the Regency State’, a two-year project funded by the Pilgrim Trust which began in January 2013. The next set of drawings to be catalogued will be those for the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. The cataloguers are Tom Drysdale and Jill Lever.

Digital photographs of a large proportion of the Soane drawings have been generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Posted on 21 October 2013 in Looking at Drawings
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