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1829 The Architectural Drawing as a Work of Art

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition contained the first space in Europe specifically dedicated to exhibiting architectural drawings within a fine art setting.1 Recent scholarly accounts of the Architecture Room, however, have been premised on the “hard fact” that “the architectural drawing was not a work of art”.2 The drawings on display there have been read exclusively as advertisements to private clients, but the works shown in the Summer Exhibition of 1829 challenge these assumptions.3

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Since 1811, architectural drawings had been gathered together in the Library. Located on the first floor, the Architecture Room was a convenient place to pause before the final flight up to the Great Room. The walls were packed: in 1829, there were 147 exhibits. Around a third of these were not architectural works but miniatures or topographical drawings, but it was still a considerably larger display than the one at the contemporary Paris Salon, where only around twenty architectural works were shown.4

Most of the architectural drawings exhibited in 1829 have been lost, but from their titles in the Catalogue it is clear that the majority were idealised proposals for public buildings. As The Athenaeum noted, “the Library, as usual, abounds in splendid designs of impracticable architecture.”5 This suggests that the main purpose of exhibiting was not to attract professional commissions from members of the visiting public, but to become established within the Academy itself. Submissions mostly came from young architects who had received some instruction at the Academy schools, but who had built little if anything. Associates were elected in November from those whose work was shown at that year’s Summer Exhibition, with architects competing against painters and sculptors.

One architect was indeed elected an Associate in November 1829: Charles Robert Cockerell. His submissions to that year’s Summer Exhibition were drawings of two public projects: one completed and one underway. The former depicted St David’s College in Wales, with a bird’s-eye perspective in landscape below and an annotated plan above (Fig. 1). The drawing suggests no sense of anxiety about architectural representation: the orthographic and pictorial modes are balanced with equal emphasis, and the inscription proudly titles the work Ichnographia, the Latin term for a plan used by Vitruvius. It is an overtly aesthetic work: The Athenaeum wrote that it was “charming both as an architectural design and as a drawing”.6 Part of Cockerell’s success in the November election must be attributed to his ability at the Summer Exhibition to present architecture as an aesthetic spectacle. Though the date of its acquisition is not recorded, the drawing became part of the Royal Collection. 

The display in the Library must have been dominated visually by the four large works submitted by John Soane. Every year since becoming an associate in 1795, he had exhibited spectacular watercolour drawings showing his designs, usually executed by Joseph Michael Gandy. The drawing of a design for the Westminster Law Courts that he exhibited in 1829 was a typical example (Fig. 2). The Law Courts drawing was not a proposal: Soane’s preferred design, itself having no chance of being executed by 1829, would only have allowed for the possibility of this version’s hypothetical execution at a future date. Nor does the drawing attempt to convey the “design” in any complete sense, with the façade the sole focus.

The drawing should instead be read as a demonstration of style. The contextual adoption of elements from an adjoining historical building was a novel stylistic approach at the time, and indeed new to Soane’s own practice. Architectural contextualism would soon become widespread in the designs of younger architects such as James Pennethorne. Soane’s drawing demonstrates the superiority of antiquarian contextualism over the style in which Soane had been forced to work on the project: as he derisively described it in the commentary, “Modern Gothic”. By embodying an idea rather than a practicable project, Soane’s drawing could claim the category of art, in the spirit of Joshua Reynolds’s painting of “Theory”, which adorned the Library’s ceiling.

The format of Soane’s drawing was principally pictorial, relegating the orthographic element of architectural drawing to a secondary space below. The pictorial format was a comparably recent innovation in British architectural drawing, which had been governed previously by an Albertian aversion to perspective. William Chambers broke with this tradition in 1776, at an early Summer Exhibition, with a drawing from his student years in Rome. Inspired by the style of the French Academy, it had been the first design by a British architect to unite perspective, colour, a realistic landscape setting, and naturalistic lighting.7 Five years after its exhibition, a drawing in perspective by Thomas Sandby became the highlight not only of the architecture section but the whole Exhibition.8 The diploma works of four subsequent architectural Academicians, including Soane, extrapolated the pictorial exhibition format of Chambers and Sandby in their own different ways. These were annually on display at the Summer Exhibition in the Council Room, alongside the diploma works of the painters.

Exhibition drawings, such as those of Cockerell and Soane in 1829, have previously been regarded only as instrumental strategies to convey three-dimensional designs on paper, rather than aesthetic endeavours in their own right. It has been argued that Gandy was the only true practitioner of architectural drawing as an art form, and even that Soane himself disapproved of the pictorial format.9 The latter has been paraphrased as warning his students that “as soon as architectural drawing becomes an end in itself—or in other words, a work of art in its own right—it has abandoned its only purpose.”10

The passage paraphrased is from Soane’s fifth Royal Academy lecture, but in fact, the original text includes no such judgement about architectural drawing. While Soane did warn his students against letting pictorial draughtsmanship monopolise their time, the rationalist prejudice against aesthetics is anachronistic. Soane even told the students that: “a superior manner of drawing is absolutely necessary”.11 By 1829, failing eyesight had prevented him from delivering a lecture for nearly a decade, and so his exhibition drawings doubled as demonstrations of this conviction.

The development of the “superior manner” may be understood instead in terms of the Academy’s foundational assertion that architects were artists, in the same category as painters and sculptors. Precedents for this assertion can be found in British architecture from Inigo Jones to Robert Adam, with a variety of definitions and justifications. The idea was given a public institutional form at the Summer Exhibition, where architects were artists because the architectural drawing could be a work of art.

  1. Previously noted by Peter Murray, “A Catholic Assembly: Architecture and the Academy”, in Peter Murray and Robert Maxwell (eds), Contemporary British Architects (Munich: Prestel-Neues, 1994), 9.↩︎

  2. N. Savage, “Exhibiting Architecture: Strategies of Representation in English Architectural Exhibition Drawings, 1760–1836”, in D. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 216.↩︎

  3. J. Anderson, “Rising Geniuses: Architecture Exhibited in London’s Earliest Architectural Exhibitions in the Second Half of the 18th Century”, The British Art Journal 18. no. 1, 84–91.↩︎

  4. At the Salon of 1827, there were nineteen architectural drawings; at the next, in 1831, there were twenty-four. Pierre Sanchez and Xavier Seydoux, Les Catalogues des Salons (Paris: l’Échelle de Jacob, 1999), Vol. 2.↩︎

  5. “Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Athenaeum, 6 August 1829, 413.↩︎

  6. “Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Athenaeum, 6 August 1829, 414.↩︎

  7. Soane Museum 17/7/11. Formerly identified as V&A 3340, which Savage corrects in “Exhibiting Architecture”.↩︎

  8. The work is only known from descriptions, but may be identified as RIBA SD104/1, V&A D.1840–1904 or Soane Museum 68/6/4.↩︎

  9. Savage, “Exhibiting Architecture”, 202.↩︎

  10. Savage, “Exhibiting Architecture”, 202.↩︎

  11. D. Watkin, Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1996), 561.↩︎

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