Soane was born in Goring-on-Thames on 10 September 1753. His father, a bricklayer, died in 1768, after which he went to live with his much older brother. Aged 15, he began training as an architect under George Dance the Younger, and in 1771 he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. He did well there, gaining a silver medal the following year, and a gold medal in 1776 for designing a triumphal arch. He spent three years in Italy studying the ancient remains, and making original designs for public buildings. On returning to England in 1780, Soane struggled at first to find commissions to design country houses, but by the mid 1780s his services were in constant demand.
Soane married Elizabeth Smith, niece to the successful builder George Wyatt, in 1784. They had two sons that survived infancy. On the death of Wyatt in 1790, the couple inherited money and property, leading Soane to purchase 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He demolished the existing house, and rebuilt it to his own design. In 1788, he won the coveted post of architect to the Bank of England, a lucrative position that kept him busy for many years, and involved rebuilding most of the existing bank and doubling its size. Between 1789 and 1994, he also designed a new prison at Norwich Castle. He was noted, generally, for an original and personal interpretation of the Neoclassical style.
Among other appointments, Soane became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, and architect for the Office of Works. His success enabled him, over the years, to buy and rebuild 13 and 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Number 13 is today the world famous Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane was knighted in 1832, and the following year obtained an Act of Parliament through which his house became a national architecture museum. He died in 1837. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Royal Berkshire History or HistOracle.
Soane is not known as a diarist - indeed he is not listed in the extensive Annotated Bibliography of Diaries Printed in English, compiled by Christopher Handley. However, during the rebuilding of 13 Lincoln’s Inn Field - between July and October 1812 - he did keep a notebook. This is held by Sir John Soane’s Museum, and, in celebration of the building’s 200 anniversary last year (2012), it published the diary on its website. For each day, there is a scan of the original, a transcript, and a commentary. Here are some sample extracts and commentaries.
13 July 1812
‘Mr Tyndale gave up the possession of No. 13 this evening’
14 July 1812
‘Mr Tyndale compl. the removing his goods, wine etc.’
17 July 1812
‘Began pulling down’
1 August 1812
‘Completed pulling down and removing the old Mat. except a small part of the front wall and the back front wall’
28 August 1812
‘The floor was put on the floor of the Study and the walls of the Court raised several feet above the Ground floor of the House
Between the fascia over the Kitchen window and the paving of the Area are four course of stones in Height, the whole of the third and part of the fourth was completed this 29th Aug.’
Commentary: ‘Work has progressed rapidly at the back of the house. By this date the basement on the west side of the central courtyard was complete enabling the floor to be laid in the ‘Study’ (the Breakfast Room today). [. . .]’
6 October 1812
‘The two statues were brought here this morning punctually to Mr Sealy’s promise between 10 and 11 and in the course of the afternoon they were raised into their proper places and the workmen began to remove the upper part of the Scaffolding’
Commentary: ‘The two statues are the Coade Stone female figures after those on the Erechtheion in Athens, visible on the facade of No. 13. On November 6th Soane paid for them, noting in his accounts ‘Coade & Sealey £40’.’
13 October 1812.
‘The whole of the building covered in completely’
Commentary: ‘The final entry in Soane’s notebook marks the end of the project to build No.13, at least for this phase. Soane would continue to make additions and alterations for the rest of his life, as his collection grew. [. . .]’