Soane in Norfolk

Above: Burnham Westgate Hall (1783)
Above: Burnham Westgate Hall (1783)

Earlier this autumn I was invited to deliver a short talk on the work of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1787) for the Norfolk Association of Architects’ Wednesday Forum. Soane’s presence has been acknowledged since the inception of the BA(Hons) Architecture course at Norwich University of the Arts, and passing references are made to his contribution to the region’s architectural culture in our course documentation. Aside from one visit to the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London with our first cohort of students (to study the way in which Soane adapted three adjacent properties on Lincoln Inn’s Inn Fields to house his collection of paintings and artefacts) my experience of Soane’s work is limited. I was reassured that my talk would be limited to just twenty minutes, and that I was expected to prompt a discussion rather than present a coherent piece of research. I am particularly grateful to a number of significantly better informed members of the audience for their contributions, which both individually and in total put mine to shame.

The Soane Museum records Soane as having known to have worked on a somewhat staggering 335 projects between 1779 and 1831, the duration of his professional career. Summerson (1983) divides Soane’s career into five periods: his student period (1776-80, aged 23-27), his early practice period (1780-91, aged 27-38), his middle period (1791-1806, aged 38-53), his picturesque period (1806-21, aged 53-68) and his last period (1821-33, aged 68-80). Soane was a pupil of the architects George Dance (1741-1825) and Henry Holland (1745-1806). He was awarded the Royal Academy’s Silver Medal in 1772 and the Gold Medal in 1776, and a traveling scholarship in 1777 which enabled him to embark on a Grand Tour with Robert Furze Brettingham (1750-1806) in the following year. Soane returned in 1780, penniless and in debt. A handful of tentative job opportunities emerged, leading Soane to travel to the north of Ireland (where he was briefly engaged in the possible redesign of Downhill House) and thence to Scotland.

Out of my hurried research into the talk came an interesting discovery. Soane worked on 25 projects in Norfolk. What is remarkable is that they are all dated between 1783 and 1792 – in other words they were completed or worked upon entirely during Soane’s thirties, the period in which Soane finally began to establish his practice. After all, architects are still considered young until they turn forty. That such a significant British architect should have worked on so many projects here in Norfolk, all before his more renowned commissions, suggests that we have in this county the possibility of discovering something of the young Soane.

It is recognised that a series of mostly domestic commissions established Soane’s career. The Sir John Soane’s Museum has published a comprehensively researched list of known projects on its website. Tantalisingly, and what seems to have been only of passing interest to architectural historians to date, is that a number of these early projects in Norfolk have now been lost or (in one or two cases) not yet identified. I have highlighted some of the more interesting projects below.

Above: Letton Hall (1783)

Of the extant buildings, most famously, Soane designed an entirely new building at Letton Hall (1783). This has subsequently been remodelled, and I have been persuaded over a pint or two with one the aforementioned better informed members of my audience that the alterations could legitimately be seen to have been intended to make an otherwise unremarkable house appear more ‘Soanian’. Perhaps more impressively, at Burnham Westgate Hall (1783 – marketed two years ago for £7,000,000), Soane worked on a number of alterations to the house and stables, some new farm buildings and designs for an unrealised a tower.  Soane is known to have worked on a house in Cockley Cley for a MR. J.R. Dashwood (1784) and some drawings are in the Sir John Soane Museum’s collection. In the grounds of Costessey Hall (itself demolished shortly after the end of World War I), just outside Norwich, Soane designed a single range of stables and a dove house (1784). The former was partially destroyed by fire in 1996 and remains in a ruinous state. I am informed that planning permission is being sought or has been granted to redevelop them. Saxlingham Rectory (1784), built for the Reverand John Gooch also survives, with a fairly remarkable nineteen seventies pavilion-style extension by (if I recall correctly) Fielden and Mawson. The house is currently being refurbished and reconfigured by the Wymondham practice Lucas Hickman Smith. Soane also designed a notable garden music room at Earsham Hall (1784) as well as at least one gateway and pair of lodges at Langley Park (1784), now a private school.

Of the unexecuted or unidentified projects in Norfolk, the Sir John Soane’s Museum lists designs for a house in Hetherset (1788), alterations and additions to a house possibly in or around Melton Constable for Jacob Ashley (1788), Gawdy Hall for the Reverand Gervase Holmes (1788, demolished 1939), the County Gaol at Norwich Castle (1788, demolished 1825), designs for a new house at Wreatham Hall for William Colhoun (1788) and for one final tantalising moment, an unlocated house in Norwich for Alderman Crowe (1792). Soane made some alterations to a house and designed a new gamekeepers lodge at Tofts (1786), but these found themselves within the exclusion zone of the 30,000 acre Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in the Breckland of west Norfolk and were demolished (or rather, they were bombed during an Army training exercise) in the nineteen fifties.

What does this rapid chronology of Soane’s early work in Norfolk tell us? Currently – very little. But, as an architecture academic in an arts university, it is tantalising that apparently very little considered research has been conducted into the young Soane’s work in Norfolk. Constructing a quick literature review for the NAA Wednesday Forum, I discovered a general insouciance towards Soane’s early work, it being dismissed out of hand as the work of an immature young designer whose greatest work was yet to come. I might be wrong, but I sense that there might be some fruitful digging to be done (if that interests you as well, you know where to find me).

To view my working map of Soane’s twenty-five projects in Norfolk, click here. If you have any corrections or updates, please drop me a line in the comments.

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