Henry Parke (1790-1835), Plan of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1817. Photo: Geremy Butler

Crumbling is not an instant’s act

A new exhibition revels in the intricacies and drama of architectural drawings — and the ruins of buildings they leave behind

Artillery Row On Art

Architecture often seems something of a modern miracle: sheets and sheets of plans show buildings with every conceivable shadow mapped out by science and adjusted for time of day and season, and the existing environment is shown in high-tech images taken by drones. 

So, when greeted by an impressively clear overhead view of Stonehenge — complete with shapes of shadows and measurements — one might be forgiven for assuming this is the work of some contemporary architectural firm. But, the large watercolour dates from 1817, and was drawn by architectural draughtsman Henry Parke for his employer Sir John Soane. 

Fantasies, alternative realities, and lost glories are a running theme in the exhibition

This drawing is on display in the exhibition Hidden Masterpieces at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was the most celebrated British architect of the Georgian period. He designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and a number of other significant public buildings. He collected the archive material from his practice, and added drawings by other architects and artists, mainly of buildings, fittings and furnishings, which amounted to a lifetime collection of 30,000 drawings. This collection – held in the house designed by the architect himself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – was bequeathed as a museum, which has remained virtually unchanged in almost two centuries. 

Office of Sir John Soane, Progress view of the west front of Dulwich Picture Gallery under construction, 1812 (Photo: Geremy Butler)

The drawings are rarely accessible due to the fact that they are bound in books. Drawings and watercolours are prone to fading due to exposure to light, so they must be “rested” and rarely subject to daylight. Hidden Masterpieces brings a handful of the more unusual and high-quality sheets to public attention for a few months.  

There is a capriccio (fantasy) of an enormous interior by Piranesi (1720-1778). Piranesi was famed in his own day for his views of Rome; his most influential art works were his architectural fantasies, including scenes inside cavernous prisons. Lit by barred windows, rough figures climb broad staircases that rise up to balustrades surmounted by colossal urns, under pillars that disappear into darkness. This drawing is everything we do not expect of an architectural work. It is roughly and energetically executed, with ink wash providing a foreboding atmosphere; preliminary traces of red chalk give perspective lines that the artist failed to erase. It is easy to see why such pieces have excited generations of artists and writers, as well as the architects they were intended for.

Fantasies, alternative realities, and lost glories are a running theme in the exhibition. A detailed watercolour of a planned monument to Sir John’s wife (who died in 1815) has a neoclassical mausoleum surrounded by a stone enclosure. It is tempting to view the rolling wooded setting – a cemetery in St Pancras district, London – as a glimpse of a lost fragment of old England. As the catalogue (Frances Sands, Architectural Drawings: Hidden Masterpieces from Sir John Soane’s Museum, Batsford, £35) explains, “This view depicts the monument as executed, but within an exquisite fantasy landscape, rather than the confines of St Giles-in-the-Fields burial ground.” 

Another lost alternative is the Nicholas Hawksmoor layout of an enclosure around St Paul’s Cathedral, drawn for Sir Christopher Wren. The generous layout would have surrounded the cathedral with a wall with an internally facing colonnade, complete with a round structure in front. This could have been a monument or mausoleum. In the end, the grounds were more modest, fenced and without the separate round structure. St Paul’s makes an appearance in a comparative drawing of cross-sections of buildings. It shows Sir John’s Rotunda of the Bank of England, inside (respectively escalating) Oxford’s Radcliffe Library, the Pantheon and St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the latter dwarfing the other structures. 

It seems only a matter of decades is needed to turn horror into something curiously aestheticised

Sir John’s fascination with antiquity — seen in his collection of numerous architectural fragments around the museum — is evident in his acquisition of a drawing attributed to Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570) of the Colosseum. This detailed ink drawing (c.1550) is apparently not from life but a copy of a pre-existing design, probably for an engraver. Cock was a Flemish publisher and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s first employer, paying Bruegel to design prints before he went on to devote his energies to painting. Sir John’s assistants could use his personal collection of antiquities to improve their drawing technique and learn the classical orders. 

Sir John was addicted to architectural drawings, acquiring whole collections from architects’ offices and having the loose sheets bound in volumes. He would sometimes pay more than their value, especially when he had a personal connection to the architect. Drawings from his own projects are also included in this exhibition: there is a view of the Dulwich Picture Gallery under construction in 1812, showing the scaffolding. The gallery – one of the most beautiful in existence, at least until the modern extension – became the template for museums in the nineteenth century. Other views are of rooms inside his house and a planned expansion of the façade of the house along the whole terrace. 

When thinking of the glorious ruins depicted in many of the sheets on display, one is forcefully struck by the romanticism of distance. No one would claim the ruins in Ukraine were picturesque, yet the bullet holes of 1945 in Berlin walls are preserved in shabby-chic bars. It seems only a matter of decades is needed to turn horror into something curiously aestheticised.      

A visit to Hidden Masterpieces and a tour of Sir John Soane’s Museum reminds us of the fate of all ruins. Many of Sir John’s buildings have now gone, demolished to make for buildings long-gone in their turn. They burned away like mist, while the ruins of Rome live on.  

Hidden Masterpieces is at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 5 June 2022.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover