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To complement our current exhibition Building a Dialogue: The architect and the client, two members of the Soane Museum’s curatorial staff, Frances Sands and Tom Drysdale will write fortnightly blog pieces on particular objects and themes within the exhibition. This week Frances Sands will consider the state as client.
Instances of state patronage serve a variety of purposes, be they civic, municipal, institutional, organisational or commemorative. The resources of the state are generally reserved for constructions proposed in the service of public interest, making a profound societal impact on the topography or urban fabric of public spaces. Drawing on a larger purse than any private individual could muster, state commissions tend to be grandiose in scale, but are often overseen by cumbersome committees. An example of this can be seen at Greenwich Royal Hospital. In 1692 King William II and Queen Mary granted John Webb’s King Charles II Building at Greenwich Palace for conversion into ‘a hospital for wounded seamen’. Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor were commissioned to undertake this conversion, proposing a variety of schemes in an attempt to satisfy the 200 Commissioners and Trustees.
Of Wren’s various schemes for the hospital, his second, ‘the central dome scheme’, was reproduced in a bird’s-eye perspective view by Leonard Knyff. The topographical context is shown inaccurately, suggesting that Knyff was unfamiliar with the site. However, Wren’s ‘central dome scheme’ for the Hospital is depicted with great accuracy, and therefore Knyff’s view corresponds with Hawksmoor’s plan for the scheme. The plan shows Wren’s provision of long open wards divided by hierarchy. Wards for higher status patients are wider and heated by plentiful chimneypieces, while the lower status wards are narrower and heated by corner chimneypieces. This unexecuted scheme blocked the way between the river and the Queen’s House, and the executed three-block alternative was not finally agreed until a year later.