This blog is part of our 'Cataloguing Soane's Churches' series. You can read our other articles using the links below.

By Dr Roberto Rossi
Trainee Soane Drawings Cataloguer

My responsibility as a trainee cataloguer of architectural drawings is to learn how to catalogue a specific portion of Sir John Soane’s vast collection of 30,000 architectural drawings. My work involves cataloguing around 300 drawings for Soane’s three London churches built as part of the Church Commissioners Act (1818). The churches are: Holy Trinity Marylebone, St Peter’s Walworth, and St John’s Bethnal Green.

The process of learning has involved handling original works, measuring, identifying watermarks, assessing condition, and all before examining the content of the drawing. The drawings may be: a ground plan, a site survey, elevation, section, perspective, or a detail (some drawings combine two or more of these on one sheet), and the scale has to be ascertained. Any text is transcribed, and the hand identified - it is usually one of Soane’s pupils - although sometimes Soane’s hand can be discerned offering emendations.

Drawing by Soane office of an elevation of St Peter’s, Walworth, datable to 1822

Fig. 1. Soane office hand, elevation of St Peter’s, Walworth, datable to 1822, SM 54/6/8. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama ©Sir John Soane’s Museum

The church designs are well drawn, ruled with pencil and pen, and in most cases coloured washes have been added. Finally, the actual drawing is examined. Its purpose is ascertained: the subject and type of drawing (preliminary design, working drawing, finished drawing, presentation drawing, office copy), and then it is described concisely and coherently, but with all the relevant details (probably the most difficult task of cataloguing).

Afterwards, all the drawings for a specific building are sequenced: chronologically, typologically, perhaps both, depending on the drawings. Then follows the interpretation, when the cataloguer examines and contextualises the drawings, and secondary sources are assessed.

Detail of Soane office hand elevation of St Peter’s, Walworth

A detail of Fig. 1. Detail of the fret running just beneath the roofline of the church

The first church I examined was St Peter’s Walworth. The chronology of design was secure and could be followed over a c.19 month period of construction from mid-1823 to early 1825. By sequencing the drawings I was able to analyse those which were undated, and so to allocate to each a particular year.

Historically, one of the Soane’s biggest constraints under the Church Commissioner’s Act was the limited budget allocated to each church. An important theme within my analysis was to examine how Soane adapted his designs to correspond with these financial constraints.

A brief example shows an elevation for the west side of St. Peter’s and is datable to 1822 (Fig. 1, above). Note the frieze of fret running continuously above the nine bays, the Soane caps over the first and ninth bays, the latticed windows, the fluted Corinthian pilasters, and high, centrally-placed pitched-roof. 

Drawing by Soane office of an elevation of St Peter’s, Walworth, 1823

Fig. 2. Soane office hand, elevation of St Peter’s, Walworth, 1823, SM 54/6/16. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama ©Sir John Soane’s Museum

Now compare it to a similar elevation produced in 1823 (Fig. 2). Here the frieze extends only over the first and ninth bays, the caps have disappeared, the windows are blank, the pilasters are unfluted, and the roof is low-pitched and abutting the tower. The question is whether this was an aesthetic choice, or a decision enforced by the need to economise, especially as some of the more decorative elements such as the fret, caps and latticing, may have been construed as superfluous ornamentation.

You can browse the Soane Museum's vast collection of drawings online, as well as other objects in the collection, on our Collections Database.

The cataloguing of Soane’s architectural drawings for his London churches has been made possible thanks to the support of the Mercers’ Company, the Pilgrim Trust and the Tavolozza Foundation. We are sincerely grateful for their commitment towards Dr Roberto Rossi’s work.