A Chance Discovery: The Design and Evolution of the Stone Building at the Palace of Westminster – Research by ADAM Director George Saumarez Smith Featured in the Georgian Group Journal

June 27, 2024

George recently discovered some intriguing drawings in a book, which piqued his interest. Driven by curiosity, he conducted extensive research to uncover their origins and significance. His essay detailing these findings has been published in the Georgian Group Journal. This is titled 'A chance discovery: the design and evolution of the stone building at the palace of Westminster'.

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Last year I inherited a box of old books. As I already have far too many books at home, I have recently been trying not to take on anymore, but these books were special as they belonged to my grandfather, the classical architect Raymond Erith, who died in 1973. As I unpacked the box, I found that one of the books was a copy of John Soane's Plans, Elevations and Sections of Buildings, published in 1788. I already had this in my library but my copy was a reprint issued by Gregg Press in the 1970s, whereas my grandfather's copy was an original. Opening it up and already familiar with its contents, I was surprised to find how large the plates were, printed in a soft brown ink on pale blue paper.

Book collectors will understand my excitement at handling an original copy of one of Soane's early works. Along with the other volumes now piled on the floor around me, this book had been in a locked cupboard for many years, which added to the thrill of discovery. But I was about to find something more unexpected. Near the end of the book, tucked in between two pages, was a pair of loose drawings. These were smaller than the plates of the book, around two-thirds of their size, and on thicker cartridge paper. They were both drawn in pen with ink wash, and both were elevations of buildings. The engraved Soane plates in the book itself were mostly of houses, designed early in his career and already within the spare architectural style with which he is most associated. But these two loose drawings were rather different. They were for a large palace-fronted building and in character they seemed to be earlier in date, belonging to the Palladian mainstream of the mid-Georgian period. Questions started to form in my mind. Where had these drawings come from? Had my grandfather bought them separately and then slipped them into the book for safe keeping? Or might they have already been there when he acquired the book? I had no answers to these questions and for now, I put the book to one side and went on to look at what else was in the box.


Some time later, I had another look at the two loose drawings. The first of them showed a symmetrical elevation of a long building, underneath which was written 'Design for the West Front, next St Margarets Lane' (Fig. 1). The building was three storeys in height and seventeen bays in length, with a three-bay centrepiece and single-bay pavilions at the ends. The ground floor was rusticated, and both the centrepiece and the pavilions had an attic storey. The elevation was drawn in pen, shaded in a grey wash, and appeared to be a presentation drawing for the design. The second drawing was the same size as the first and seemed to be a larger-scale detail of the same building, showing a six-bay facade adjoining what appeared to be an existing structure on the right hand side. (Fig. 2). Parts of this drawing were more finished than others, some drawn in pencil and others in ink, and some of the annotations more rapidly written than others. Another curious aspect of this second drawing was that the ground floor had been pasted onto the sheet on a separate piece of paper, presumably as an amendment to an earlier version of the design. To the left of the sheet was a note about floor levels referring to 'Ordinance', and to the right of the sheet was written 'Court of Requests'. So, putting together the annotations on both drawings, I looked up St Margaret's Lane and the Court of Requests and found that they belonged to the old Palace of Westminster. As will be known to many readers of this journal, this was a large complex of buildings to the south of Westminster Abbey that was altered in the eighteenth century and then later demolished and replaced in the nineteenth by the Houses of Parliament that survive to this day.

The part of the Palace of Westminster that fronted onto St Margaret's Lane (later St Margaret's Street) was known as the Stone Building, built in the Palladian style between 1755 and 1770, and attributed to the architect John Vardy (1718-1765). Although Vardy is usually credited as the architect of the Stone Building, the design was based on earlier plans prepared for the site by William Kent. During the 1740s Kent prepared a wide range of designs for the Palace of Westminster that included a new building to the west of Westminster Hall with a frontage to St Margaret's Lane. The plan had shown a long west-facing facade with end pavilions and a centrepiece breaking forward in two steps, a composition that was typical of Kent's palace-fronted facade designs. Although nothing eventually came of Kent's wider plans for the site, his design for this new building was carried forward as the basis for the Stone Building which was to be built in several phases over the next thirty years.

In considering the authorship of the Stone Building, it is important to note that there was a close connection between John Vardy and William Kent. In 1744 Vardy brought out Some designs of Mr Inigo Jones and Mr William Kent', an important publication for the momentum of the mid eighteenth-century Palladian movement. After Kent's death in 1748, he became responsible for work on the Palace of Westminster, a natural step as he had already prepared many of Kent's design drawings for the site during the preceding years.

Although the overall form of the Stone Building was determined early on from Kent's designs, its in tended location moved around in various plans dating from the 1750s and 6os under Vardy's direction. Once its location had finally been settled on, the first part to be built was the centre block, completed in 1760 and housing the records of the Court of King's Bench. In 1762 Vardy exhibited at the Society of Artists 'A Design for the Court of King's Bench Records etc. in St Margaret's Lane, Westminster, (made) in 1753, when Clerk of the Works at Westminster3, so it had clearly taken a considerable time for building work to commence. Once the centre block had been built, Vardy was tasked with extending the facade by five bays in a southwards direction to house the Board of Ordnance. This was handed over in February 1769, but Vardy died in May 1765, so can never have seen it completed.

The next phase of the Stone Building was the south-west corner pavilion and the return elevation to meet up with the Court of Requests to the east. This was needed to provide a new entrance to the House of Commons on the ground floor, with committee rooms and record offices above. The commission fell to Kenton Couse (1721- 90) who, after Vardy's death, had taken over the role of Clerk of Works at Westminster. Couse is a more obscure name in the history of English architecture, best known for his work in reconstructing 10 Downing Street between 1766 and 17755. He completed the third phase of the Stone Building in 1766- 9, and in 1783 it was recorded in a perspective drawing by William Capon (1757- 1827), now in the Westminster Public Library (Fig. 3).

I was beginning to make progress in identifying the subject of the two drawings I had found in the Soane book: they appeared to be drawings of the west and south elevations of the Stone Building designed by a combination of Kent, Vardy and Couse. And by coincidence there was another connection with Soane. In the digital catalogue of the Soane Museum there was a folder of drawings listed as relating to William Kent's and John Vardy's designs for the Palace of Westminster. Tantalisingly, these were listed in the museum catalogue as being plans in Vardy's hand, but it was also noted that 'no elevations survive'. Could my two drawings be the missing pieces of this puzzle? So I made an appointment to visit the Soane Museum to see their drawings, and I am grateful to Sue Palmer for her assistance and advice. As it turns out, it was not such a coincidence that drawings of the Stone Building should be in the Soane Museum. Soane worked extensively on the Palace of Westminster between 1824 and 1827, before the 1834 fire which destroyed most of the Palace and paved the way for the Houses of Parliament designed by Pugin and Barry.

As part of his work on the Palace of Westminster, Soane was commissioned in the 1820s to remodel the Law Courts in the space between the west side of Westminster Hall and the Stone Building. This included the completion of the west facade of the Stone Building to make it fully symmetrical, finally realising the scheme that had been envisaged by William Kent nearly a hundred years earlier. As well as completing the Palladian facade of the Stone Building, Soane designed a new north facade to connect the Law Courts to the side of Westminster Hall, and this too was Palladian in style. This was perhaps a surprising decision for Soane to have made in the 182o's, and, even as it was under construction, this facade sparked a debate about architectural style. The Dorset MP Henry Bankes led a 'committee of taste' to object to the design and forced its demolition and replacement with a new Gothic facade. Soane never forgave this indignity, and campaigned unsuccessfully to have his design reinstated. The debate about Classical versus Gothic was to gather momentum, and when the competition for the new Palace of Westminster was launched in 1835 it was a requirement that designs must be either Gothic or Elizabethan in style. Whilst Soane was working at the Palace of Westminster, many of the eighteenth-century drawings were copied by assistants in his office and, since the originals were destroyed in the later fire, these copies are now the only record we have of their appearance.

I arrived at the Soane Museum and was shown the drawings in the folder from drawer 36. Looking through the Vardy drawings, they seemed very similar to my two drawings: the draughtsmanship, lettering, scale bars and paper were all virtually identical. But this could be misleading, as the Office of Works was well known for the consistency of its drawing techniques, later referred to by John Harris as the 'grey wash style'. Vardy's draughtsmanship had been similar to Kent's, and it was entirely possible that Kenton Couse, following in Vardy's footsteps, had adopted the same well-established house style (Figures 4 and 5). The more I looked at the second of my drawings, the more convinced I was that this was a design sketch rather than a finished elevation. And it was clear from the annotation on the first drawing ('From A to B is already Built') that this drawing must have been produced when the previous phase was complete, or at the very least substantially built. So these drawings must be designs for the third phase of the Stone Building, consisting of the corner pavilion and the southerly return wing. Crucially this puts the date at around the time of the previous phase's completion in 1768, and means the drawings must have been by Kenton Couse rather than John Vardy.

All of this ties in with the very complete history of the Stone Building compiled by Sir Howard Colvin. Colvin recorded that the committee appointed in November 1766 to oversee the design and execution of the third phase had 'recommended the adoption of plan and elevations marked B, C and D. These were ordered to be preserved with the report but were destroyed in the fire of 1834'. The two drawings I had found appeared to be preliminary versions of the drawings that were later approved by the committee, showing firstly a complete elevation of the Stone Building facing St Margaret's Lane, and secondly a larger scale design sketch for the new south elevation of the same building.

The fact that these were preliminary design drawings also accounts for discrepancies compared to what was actually built. The first drawing shows a plain cornice above the second floor to the corner pavilion, whereas the second shows a bolder modillion cornice to the corner pavilion and return elevation. We have evidence that the latter was adopted in a survey drawing from Soane's office dated 1793 (Fig. 6). The first drawing shows a preliminary design for the corner pavilions in which the first-floor window is a Serliana and the second-floor window matches those in the recently built flank to the north; the second drawing, however, shows the Serliana set within an arched recess, as had been used in the centrepiece of the central block, and reminiscent of the garden front of Chiswick House. Another difference is that the second drawing shows the first-floor windows with alternating triangular and segmental pediments, whereas the Capon drawing of 1783 shows them to all be triangular. And lastly, the ground floor openings in the second drawing are all shown as arched voids, whereas the Capon drawing shows them as built to have been smaller window and door openings set into arched reveals.

All of these slight revisions, combined with the annotations on the second drawing showing the problems needing to be overcome with internal floor levels, show that Kenton Couse was not merely carrying out a pre-determined design. There were numerous practical and aesthetic challenges to be solved as well as maintaining the character of the overall general scheme. Sadly, however, the Stone Building no longer exists. A photograph in the Howarth-Loomes Collection in the National Monuments Record (Fig. 7) was taken in around 1880, shortly before its demolition in 1883. The photograph shows all of the west facade intact with the exception of the end pavilion at the southern end. This flank of the building - the part associated with Kenton Couse - had been connected to Soane's work adjoining the Law Courts, and was destroyed in the fire of 1834.

The chance discovery of two drawings in an old book has provided a missing piece in the history of the Stone Building. Prepared by Kenton Couse, but with a marked similarity to drawings by John Vardy, they illustrate the consistency of architectural style and draughtsmanship that characterised the Office of Works in the mid-Georgian period. They also show that Couse played a significant part in the iterative design of the Stone Building, arguably as important as the contributions of William Kent, John Vardy and John Soane. But how these drawings ended up
in the hook where they were found, I will probably never know.