January 19: The Professor

2016/01/19 § 1 Comment

During this month in 1810, Sir John Soane commenced his lectures before the Royal Academy.

In that year Soane (1753-1837) was at the height of his career, with loads of good work behind him, currently at work at the Bank of England, and with many productive years still ahead of him.  One of the characteristics that separates him from others of the same generation who also practiced Neo-Classicism (besides the fact that Soane was quite simply the best) was his focus on architectural education and the character he thought it should take.  It was becoming more and more expected that future architects should be trained with a formalized intellectual introduction to architecture in addition to practical experience in an office setting.  Soane took this to heart, and when remodeling his great house at Nos. 12-13-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, incorporated extensive galleries to display his great collection of antiquities for the use of his students.  This house remains one of the single most dazzling, spectacular and marvelous interiors anywhere, ever.  And because he made a gift of it to the nation, you can see it!

Soane formalized his teaching in a series of lectures presented before the Royal Academy.  For ten years he wrote and delivered these lectures on history and theory, illustrated by over 1,000 watercolor renderings completed by his students.  (Holy watercolors batman, those people could draw and paint.  A small portion of these works were the subject of a delicious exhibition at the Soane museum a few years back.)  Captivating as the illustrations were/are, it’s Soane’s content that we turn to today, for it still rings with pertinence:

From Lecture I:

The mind of the student should be impressed with the absolute necessity of close and unremitted attention, of deep and indefatigable research.  From earliest youth not a moment must be lost by him who desires to become a great artist.  He who seeks superior excellence must search deeply into the motives and principles which directed the minds of the great artists of antiquity who produced those works of elegant fancy, of true refinement, and correct taste, which have done so much honour to the human mind and will ever be the admiration of enlightened people of all ages and of all countries.  By referring to first principles and causes, the uncertainties of genius will be fixed, and the artist enabled to feel the beauty and appreciate the value of ancient works, and thereby seize the spirit that directed the minds of those who produced them.  We must be intimately acquainted with not only what the ancients have done, but endeavor to learn (from their works) what they would have done.  We shall thereby become artists not mere copyists; we shall avoid servile imitation and, what is equally dangerous, improper application.  We shall not then be led astray by fashion and prejudice, in a foolish and vain pursuit after novelty and paltry conceits, but contemplate with increased satisfaction and advantage the glorious remains of antiquity.

Soane’s basic idea was for the architect to be teachable, to be deferential to the worthy lessons of the past, and to be smartly critical enough to recognize what was worth his study: in short, to find his artistic voice within the continuum of approved developments stretching back to antiquity, rather than to reproduce what has come before or serve personal egocentric preferences that can only result in irrelevancy.

Image: portrait sketch of Soane by Thomas Cooley, 1810 (from this source)

Text of Soane’s Lecture I is taken from David Watkin’s edited collection of Soane’s Royal Academy Lectures. You should buy it, and , while you’re at it, everything else that David Watkin has written and/or edited, starting with this.


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