The Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices: Survivals and New Discoveries
In 1823 Soane was directed to build new offices for the Treasury and Privy Council on Whitehall. Drawings Cataloguer Tom Drysdale has been cataloguing the designs for the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. In the second of two blogs about the Treasury offices he explores what survives of Soane’s building and tells us about some of the exciting new discoveries that have been made during the course of cataloguing the drawings.
To read Tom's previous blog, 'The Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices: Lost Interiors' please click here.
In my previous blog I wrote about the partial destruction of Soane’s Privy Council Chamber in the 1840s when Charles Barry removed the eight columns and ‘starfish’ ceiling from the room. This was part of a bigger scheme for enlarging the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. More office space was needed due to the growth of the Statistical and Railway Departments over the course of the 1830s and Barry was directed to make plans to increase the available accommodation ‘and at the same time if possible [to] improve the architectural appearance of the building’. Soane’s building had been criticised for its want of grandeur, its asymmetry and its lack of height.
Approved design for the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices. The north pavilion (to the right of the drawing) was not built (SM 50/3/4)
Despite the constraints of having to retain the existing floor levels, openings and the Corinthian order of the exterior, Barry managed to find a solution that remedied the asymmetry of the elevation while reusing elements of Soane’s building. By removing the colonnades and pushing the pavilion back in line with the front of the building, Barry was able to build a matching ‘pavilion’ for the Home Department that didn’t encroach on to Whitehall. His distaste for engaged columns was allayed by the employment of a broken entablature inspired by Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House across the road. Additional space was made by raising the columns on to a basement storey and building attics over the five bays at the north and south ends.
The Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices after alteration by Sir Charles Barry, illustration from Rev. A. Barry, The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry (1867)
In many ways we should be sympathetic to Barry. After all, in dismantling the Privy Council Chamber he was only carrying out the instructions of Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council and the man who had attempted to have the room taken down in 1827. Much of Soane’s work – the chimneypieces, the wall panelling and the court furniture – was left untouched and the rosette from the dismantled ceiling was reset in the centre of the room. On the building’s exterior the columns and parts of the entablature were also reused (the exact extent of Barry’s recycling is a current subject of research). In fact, the western part of the elevation facing Downing Street still survives as built by Soane, an ashlar façade with Greek fret moulding, recessed panels and ornamental iron railings.
More extensive than Barry’s interior alterations was the restoration work carried out between 1960 and 1963, by which time the offices had come to be described as an ‘administrative slum’ following heavy bomb damage. At this stage it was decided to demolish the majority of the Whitehall block, retaining the Soane/Barry façade but replacing the interior with a concrete frame. Surviving wall panelling was removed and reused in the Lord Privy Seal’s offices. More remnants of Soane’s building are to be found in the Privy Council wing, including the entrance lobby off Downing Street with its curved steps and shallow-domed ceiling, an adjacent passageway lined with non-structural, primitive Doric columns and a cantilevered staircase with Soane’s original balustrade and handrail which leads down to the basement. The building is now in the use of the Cabinet Office.
The Entrance Lobby from Downing Street by Soane (© London Metropolitan Archives (Corporation of London))
In the course of cataloguing the 283 drawings for the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices in the Soane Museum I have also been able to make several new discoveries about the building. One of the most intriguing is a note on a copied drawing of the basement storey held by The National Archives, dated ‘24 April 1833’, which reveals that the line of the front of the building and Soane’s intended south range was ‘imitated from the Massimi Palace by Bramante’ – now identified as the Palazzo Massimo ‘alle Colonne’ in Rome by Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536). The note provides further evidence for Soane’s interest in the architecture of the Italian Renaissance towards the end of his career, something that was more clearly expressed in the design for the New State Paper Office.
A second discovery was even more unexpected. The unearthing of several Soane Office drawings behind one of the framed Gandy watercolours by our Conservation Department revealed a previously unknown drawing for the Privy Council Offices. The drawing shows an alternative treatment for the building whereby the final three bays of the Whitehall elevation are recessed instead of projecting forward as a pavilion. Remarkably, it is the only known drawing to show this design for the façade, which perhaps explains why it was discarded and reused as a backing for the watercolour.
A newly-discovered Soane drawing showing an alternative treatment for the south east corner of the building (photo by Lewis Bush)
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.