The Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices: Lost Interiors
In 1823 Soane was directed to build new offices for the Board of Trade and Privy Council on Whitehall. The building contained one of Soane’s most breath-taking interiors. Drawings Cataloguer Tom Drysdale has been cataloguing the designs for these offices and here, in the first of two blogs about the Treasury offices, he recreates the majestic Privy Council Chamber and the unfortunate trail of events that led to it being dismantled.
In 1823 Soane, as one of the Attached Architects to the Office of Works, was instructed to make designs for new offices for the Board of Trade and Privy Council. Construction began in July 1824, but this did not mean an end to the design process. Indeed, interference from Treasury officials including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick Robinson (1782-1859), was largely to blame for the unsatisfactory nature of the building when it was completed in 1827. A Select Committee, formed to inquire into the expenses and activities of the Office of Works, came to the withering conclusion that ‘such is the unsatisfactory state in which this large and costly structure stands, from being begun without a plan which had been maturely considered, from injudicious alterations and changes having been made during its progress, and contrary, as it appears by his own statement, to the opinion of the architect… although your Committee cannot clearly ascertain to whom the blame attaches, the system cannot be good which has produced such a result’.
In a previous piece about Soane’s interiors at 10 and 11 Downing Street I talked about the strained relationship between Soane and Robinson, particularly with regard to the exterior of the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. It wasn’t just the outside of the building, though, that fell victim to the prejudices of meddling amateurs.
Soane’s Privy Council Chamber must have been one of his most spectacular and imposing interiors: a double-height room with roll-moulded oak wall panelling, pairs of Ionic columns of yellow scagliola surmounted with scrolled acroteria, murals representing British naval and military victories and, as its centrepiece, a lavishly-decorated ‘starfish’ ceiling with skylights on either side. It was, as one observer put it, ‘magnificent and suited to such an assemblage’ as ‘the Lords of the Treasury of the richest Treasury probably in the world’. But the room was not without its critics.
Soane’s Privy Council Chamber (SM 15/5/1)
The leading opponent appears to have been one Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville (1794-1865), Clerk of the Privy Council and first-class cricketer but more commonly known as a social diarist. On 6 September 1827 the Office of Works received a letter from Greville stating that ‘I am directed by the Lords of His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council to desire that you will give orders for the removal of the eight columns in the new Council Chamber at Whitehall – their Lordships being of opinion that these columns interfere with the arrangements which will be necessary for the transaction of business in that apartment.’ A little over two months later it was decided that the groined ceiling should also be removed and Soane was directed to make an estimate for this work. The ignominious task of preparing for the undoing of his own work prompted Soane to make a rough drawing of three views showing the Council Chamber before, during and after the ‘undecoration’ process. The drawing is sarcastically dedicated to Greville, Lord Harrowby and Mr Amyott, a Treasury official.
The deconstruction of the Privy Council Chamber as imagined by Soane (SM 49/3/16)
The scaffolding had already been erected when the Council Chamber earned a reprieve. Soane was chastised for his failure to produce for the Treasury any finished designs for the interior, although he maintained his innocence: ‘the great features of the Council Room, the columns, the four arches from whence the groined ceiling springs, as well as the groined ceiling itself are to be traced in the different plans, and as such I conceived sanctioned.’ In Soane’s eyes, the grand nature of the Council Chamber was a necessity forced by the enrichment of the columns on the exterior of the building. ‘In every architectural composition’, he argued, ‘the style of the exterior ought to determine the character of the interior decorations’.
The reprieve was only temporary. Greville finally had his way when, as part of the remodelling of the buildings in 1845, Charles Barry (1795-1860) removed the columns and the groined ceiling from the Council Chamber. Happily, though, Soane’s original wall panelling, chimneypieces and court furniture do survive, as well as much of the loose furniture (including a large number of distinctive chairs) which was removed to the Supreme Court when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council moved there in the 21st century.
The Privy Council Chamber as altered by Charles Barry (photo by Martin Charles, 2006)
The complete catalogue of the Board of Trade and Privy Council Office drawings can be seen here. Cataloguing of Soane’s Office of Works drawings – funded by the Pilgrim Trust – continues in 2014 with the Palace of Westminster and the New State Paper Office. The cataloguers are Tom Drysdale and Jill Lever.