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A Soane and Dance

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Architecture Unshackled: George Dance the Younger 1741-1825 At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2, until 3 January 2004

The centre of the South Drawing Room in Sir John Soane's Museum is dominated by a large wooden free-standing cabinet.

Although Soane only acquired his large collection of Dance's drawings (the contents of what has become known as the 'shrine') the year before his own death, its prominence is a telling witness to the immense debt he owed his master.

Unlike Soane himself, George Dance the Younger was born under a lucky star.

He spent six years in Italy, from the age of 17 onwards, having been born into a closeknit and artistically prominent family of painters, actors, musicians and architects.

1768, the year that the 15-year-old bricklayer's son John Soan came to live and work at Chiswell Street, saw young Dance inherit his father's position as architect to the City of London. During the four years he spent in Dance's office, Soane (the 'e' was a later embellishment) learned the rudiments of the architectural profession from his exemplary, generous and inspiring mentor.

The exhibition devoted to George Dance the Younger at the Soane Gallery demonstrates - even within such a necessarily limited selection of his output - the exceptional vitality of Dance's eye and pen, his brilliant inventive skills, the beauty of his draughtsmanship and the breadth of his interests, which ranged from innovative construction and engineering details to a major redevelopment plan for the port of London. Despite a rock-solid grounding in the Classical canon, Dance's sparkling architectural intelligence was released by his refusal to fall into any kind of straightjacket, stylistic or conceptual. Boundless curiosity and innate confidence allowed him to explore the possibilities of a given building type or commission to the full.

Within the City itself the zenith of Dance's public works was Newgate Gaol, a hugely impressive exercise in architectural expressionism, a rugged prison island, which he built from 1769 onwards (see picture). He returned to the job after the building was wrecked during the Gordon Riots of 1780. At that point Soane, newly returned from Italy and in need of work, joined him on the reconstruction.

When Soane obtained the position of architect to the Bank of England in 1788, he turned to his former master for advice and their dialogue, exemplified by Dance's exploratory drawings for handling tightly confined, top-lit spaces, was to ignite Soane's own architectural imagination in a way that neither man could have foreseen. A few years later Dance designed a series of lantern lights to illuminate the specimens in the museum gallery at the Royal College of Surgeons, immediately opposite Soane's house on Lincoln's Inn Fields.

No one could second-guess Dance. For the Guildhall, the civic headquarters of the City of London, he chose Indian elevations, an exoticism without precedent at the time. For the interior of his first church, All Hallows, London Wall, he stripped out the usual horizontal emphasis of cornice and architrave. His later churches had simple Gothic interiors and, when commissioned to design a monument to George Washington, he submitted a pyramidal scheme of stunning simplicity.

Dance worked on great town houses in Mayfair and St James and a handful of country houses, which he ran up in the early morning before breakfast. He was apparently as happy designing an austere bank building for Martins Bank, where the sober brick elevation disguised an interior supported by novel cast-iron girders, as he was thinking out a bridge, a landscape garden and a set of estate buildings for the Barings at Stratton Park.

When the same family demolished all but the portico of Stratton Park in 1961, they further diminished the living record of Dance's architecture. This exhibition, and the important catalogue of his work that it heralds, will finally put George Dance back into the prominence he so richly deserves.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape. Jill Lever's catalogue of George Dance's work will be published later this autumn

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