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Soane of the suburbs

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As well as his famous Lincoln’s Inn home, John Soane built a country house for his family in Ealing. Now Pitzhanger Manor is undergoing an ambitious renovation

When you think of John Soane’s house you automatically think of his amazing home at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the base of Sir John Soane’s Museum since his death in 1837. But the architect had another house eight miles to the west: a country villa of restrained Classical style, which he created for himself and his family in the first four years of the 19th century.

Pitzhanger Manor, which now finds itself in the London borough of Ealing thanks to the subsequent ballooning of the capital, represented an extraordinary statement by Soane. An architectural tour de force bursting with his influences, ideas and flourishes, it was intended to wow London society and provide his two sons with a good platform to follow in his footsteps. Neither, however, showed any interest in architecture and, with his wife’s health declining, he sold the villa in 1810. Pitzhanger passed through multiple owners before being acquired by Ealing Council in 1900, leading to a municipalisation of the building, which clouded Soane’s original vision.

Now though the house – and vision – is on the verge of being restored. Pitzhanger has just closed its doors to the public to allow an ambitious £10.5 million renovation by Jestico + Whiles and conservation specialist and Stirling Prize finalist Julian Harrap.

Harrap describes the house as a ‘laboratory for the development of Soane’s architecture’ and an inspiration to generations of later architects including Louis Kahn. He points to highlights such as an ‘extraordinarily rare’ cast-iron conservatory and the building’s carefully calibrated setting in the landscape, including an oblique approach which – unlike its Classical predecessors – would delay revealing the full splendour of the house to visitors until the very last minute.

‘This was to be an exemplary example of the stripped-down Classical style he is identified with,’ Harrap says. ‘This was minimalism in that it was suppressed Classicism – he was not just being an imitator. You can see Soane trying to draw himself closer to his clients. He was the son of a builder from Goring-on-Thames, and he is taking inspiration from Rome and Pompeii in particular, and showing off his great [architectural] skill, knowledge and useful skills of building.’ Soane even attempted to bolster the ‘authenticity’ of the villa by adding mock ruins to the grounds to suggest a Roman temple had once been there.

Jestico + Whiles and landscape architect J&L Gibbons have already overseen extensive improvements to the adjoining Walpole Park to reintegrate it with the house. The park was originally the grounds of Pitzhanger, and in it Soane would stroll and fish with his artist friend Turner. The main part of the project, which is now under way, will upgrade the 1939 art gallery that adjoins the house, improve visitor facilities and accessibility, and create a new café in Pitzhanger’s walled garden. However, the jewel at the heart of the project is the Grade I-listed house itself, including its magnificent breakfast room which predates the one at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and what is thought to be one of the first ever uses of plate glass in the conservatory, predating Paxton’s Crystal Palace by half a century. Jestico + Whiles’ director Jude Harris is just as excited as Harrap by the renovation.

‘The use of light, the use of section that you see in the building, the use of the reveal of the views and the connection to the landscape – even though it was done 200 years ago, to us this is what architecture is about,’ he says.

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