Sir John Soane's Museum Sketchbooks

General notes on sketch/notebooks by John Soane and allied material relating to his tour abroad, 1778 to 1780

The online catalogue of Sir John Soane's sketchbooks was researched and written by Jill Lever, former curator of the Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection, and author of Catalogue of the drawings of George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and of George Dance the Elder (1695-1768): from the collection of Sir John Soane's Museum, Azimuth Editions,  London, 2003.  



I would like to warmly thank Pierre du Prey and Margaret Richardson for kindly reading and commenting on this catalogue, Susan Palmer for checking the transcriptions and arranging for translations of foreign language text and Samantha Wyndham for her administrative work.  

My work was funded by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Jill Lever, January 2009  





Of sketchbooks in general.

The earliest surviving example of a small book of blank pages for recording observations and designs is the vellum sketchbook of a French architect, Villard de Honnecourt fl.1225-50, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. The keeping of a sketchbook was more general from the Renaissance, and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) advocated 'Make a note ... with a few lines in your little book which you should always take with you ... keep your sketches as your aids and teachers'. (Quoted, F. Ames-Lewis and J.Wright, Drawing in the Italian Renaissance workshop, 1983, p.101.) The earliest examples by British architects are all associated with travel and are: Inigo Jones's (mostly figurative) 'Roman sketchbook', 1614 and 1630s (at Chatsworth) and Nicholas Hawksmoor's topographical sketchbook of English towns, castles and churches, 1680-83 (RIBA Drawings Collection). John Adam's sketchbook of 1748, his brother Robert's of 1749-50 and James Stuart's North Italian topographical sketchbook, 1750 (all in the RIBA Drawings Collection) suggest that by this date sketchbooks were a natural part of an architect's equipment, combining drawings both for and of architecture and often with notes and lists.


Sketchbooks in Sir John Soane's Museum: a brief survey and introduction 

There are a dozen or so sketchbooks in the Soane Museum. The term 'sketchbook' is used here of a ready made, bound volume on whose pages are drawn sketches that are sometimes accompanied by notes. Of a small size that can be slipped into a pocket, sketchbooks are often associated with travel though, for example, Henry Holland used his sketchbook of 1777 (q.v.) for surveys and swiftly recorded designs made on site to be worked out later in the drawing office.

There are six sketchbooks by Soane: five of them made between 1778 and 1782 of which three accompanied him on a tour of Italy and elsewhere, 1778-80. Those five sketchbooks are catalogued here while a later sketchbook made in Paris in 1819 awaits cataloguing.

J.M.Gandy (1771-1843) was associated with Soane as his perspective artist but his sketchbook of 1806 (SM volume 161) was an independent exercise. (Literature. I.Goodall and M.Richardson, 'A Recently discovered Gandy sketchbook' in Architectural History, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, pp.45-56, XLIV, 2001)

Other sketchbooks in the Soane Museum include two early ones by Nicholas Stone the Younger (d.1647) and his brother Henry (d.1653) with drawings (some dated) made in France and Italy between 1638 and 1642 (SM volumes 92 and 93). These are not pocket-sized being 310 x 215 and 306 x 195 and appear to have 18th century bindings. (Literature. W.L.Spiers, Note-book and account book of Nicholas Stone, master mason to James I and Charles I, printed for the Walpole Society, Oxford, 1919, pp.21-22, 24 et passim)

Further sketchbooks include those by artists: Arthur William Devis (1763-1822) (SM volume 21); Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) (SM volumes 32 and 33) though the attribution of the second sketchbook to him is now in doubt; and an unidentified 18th century French artist (SM volume 6).

An online catalogue by Alan Tait of the early drawings of Robert and James Adam and their circle (1742-63) that includes many drawings from dismembered sketchbooks is accessible online see








Soane's three sketch/notebooks made principally in Italy, 1778-80

Of the sketchbooks and notebooks kept by Soane during his time abroad, only three have survived.  This is  because, when heading for Basel on his return home, the bottom of Soane's trunk became loose and the contents were strewn on the road. Packed with an accumulation of books, clothes, 'Bijoux pour les femmes', drawings, 'livres pour ecrire', Royal Academy medals and boxes of drawing instruments, the trunk had travelled separately on a cart or wagon. (Quoted from SM Priv.Corr.XIV.B.1.6; published in A.T.Bolton (editor), The Portrait of Sir John Soane, R.A. (1753-1837) set forth in letters from his friends (1775-1837), 1927, pp.31-2)

Period covered by the surviving sketch/notebooks, 1778-80

The three surviving sketch/notebooks document only a small part of a tour which began on 18 March 1778 and ended in late June 1780. A notebook with some sketches is dated December 1778 to April and July 1779 (SM volume 164). A sketchbook with notes was mostly used from January to March 1779 (SM volume 39). Finally, there is a notebook with some sketches mostly dated from April to June 1780 (SM volume 162). Thus only nine out of the twenty-eight months that Soane spent abroad are accounted for - some of them very scantily. Of other records made on Soane's tour, there are copies of measured drawings of two buildings in Sicily, but nothing for buildings in Malta, and for France there is only a separate account of the Pont de Neuilly transcribed in 1783 from a now-lost document. Soane's only encounters with antique Greek architecture were at Paestum, recorded in his sketchbook (SM volume 39), and (it is presumed) in Sicily.  See also (in Drawings catalogue):  Soane in Italy: measured drawings made or copied, 1778-80 and Soane's architectural education including theoretical designs made for the Royal Academy Schools, for exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1770-80 and in Italy: 1778-1780  

Other sources relating to Soane's tour abroad, 1778-80

There are also a few notes and sketches in the copies, which accompanied Soane, of Lady Miller's Letters from Italy, describing the manners, customs, antiquities, paintings, &c. of that country ... , volume II, and of Louis Dutens's Itinéraire des Routes les plus fréquentées, ou journal d'un voyage aux Villes principales de l'Europe ... , both published in 1777.     

Soane's use of his sketch/notebooks, 1778-80


Soane kept a sketchbook and a notebook going at the same time, but used them inconsistently so that notebooks have sketches and vice versa. Of the sketch/notebooks, one (SM volume 39) was used from beginning to end, while the other two were used from both ends and the middles left blank. All three are bound in vellum and were bought in Italy. Measuring roughly 6 by 4 or 7 by 5 inches, they easily slipped into a pocket. The medium is pen and pencil, the latter sometimes illegible, but it would have been easier to use a pencil when travelling than a pen, and in some cases Soane later went over the pencil in ink. The drawings are freehand (described as 'rough'), that is, drawn without straight edge or compasses and not to scale. These drawings record antique Roman buildings, such as the Colosseum or the newly excavated buildings at Pompeii as well as contemporary buildings such as the San Carlo theatre in Naples. There are also some designs, including that for the dining room at Downhill, Co. Derry.  The written parts of the sketch/notebooks include lists of Italian words and phrases and translation exercises, a list of English ships sailing from Spithead in July 1778 at the start of the war with France, and a list of books in Soane's library (added in about 1782). Journal entries are a combination of practical lists: of laundry, purchases, letters to be written, things to take and things to do, as well as observations on buildings, agriculture, vulcanology and geology.

Soane's travel expenses, 1778-80

Like any traveller, Soane kept a note of his expenses including loans to and from his friends. The sketch/notebooks have references to the cost of coaches, boats, horses, inns, meals (breakfasts, dinners, suppers, coffee, wine), laundry, tips or 'buona manche' (to waiters, porters, drivers, customs officers, boatmen), clothes (gloves, stockings, hats, shoes, suits, rings, waistcoats, umbrella, handkerchiefs, breeches), and articles such as books (including a dictionary), paper, prints, two seals, two vases of amber, an intaglio, oil cloth and drawings.

Costs of transport, 1778-80

Soane's Royal Academy Travelling Studentship gave him £60 a year, paid quarterly, for his expenses with an extra initial £30 and a final £30. A travelling companion for part of his trip (John Patteson, a young Norfolk merchant) reckoned that £500 a year allowed for 'travel on a most respectable footing' (C.Cubitt et al., op.cit. p.249), including 'two horses for my chaise and one to ride alternatively for my man [servant] and myself' (op.cit. p.147). Though Soane occasionally travelled in the carriages of his friends or patrons, he was generally on horseback or in a public 'voiturin' or stage coach. This was a considerable expense for Soane who noted, for example: 'agreed with a Voiturin for 3 Sequins to Verona [from Padua, 18 miles] / Buono Mano & Eatg included - 1.11.6 [sterling]'. Again, 'Voiturins from Milan to Como / 24 Miles, very bad roads, but delightful Country well cultivated & woody / [cost] 2 Sequins & [with] dinner ... [£]1.2.0'. This journey took eight hours. And another entry, 'agreed with a Voiturin / for 3 Sequins and half buona Mano to / take me [from Milan] to Genoa abt 100 miles / in 2½ days' at a rate of 40 miles a day and cost of £1.11.6d. Depending on the state of the roads, the average length of Soane's journeys may have been 24 to 30 miles a day. Soane noted that Velletri, where he stayed overnight, was '24 Miles, 3 posts / from Rome'. The system of posting was in the hands of postmaster, driver and postillion, and involved hiring horses which were changed at post-houses sited along the main routes at intervals of about every eight miles. While a wealthy traveller might bring his own carriage or hire one for the whole or part of a tour, the public voiturin or stage-coach was the cheaper alternative. Soane's journey out of Italy to Switzerland was by boat and then on horseback, with another for baggage. There are several references in the sketch/notebooks to the costs of the 'carriage of the Roba' or trunk which went separately. For example, 'Carriage of Trunk from Parma to Milan [£]0.18.0', 'Carriage of Roba to Mantua - [£]0.6.0' and 'my share of the Carriage of the Roba to Coira [£]0.15.9'. Soane also sent some acquisitions back in the luggage of his friends, as with Giannnone's many volumed political history of the Kingdom of Naples and Stern's sermons which were 'Sent to England in Mr [Rowland] Burdon's Box' in August 1779. These seem to have arrived safely, since inscribed editions of the correct date are in Soane's library.

Variety of coinage

Each of the states of Italy minted its own coinage.  Dutens's Itinéraire gives those of Turin, Genoa, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Milan.  Together with French and other coins in general use in Italy, Soane mentioned a great variety including baiocchi, batz, carlinos, ducats, grains, Milanese livres, onzas, pauls, scudi and sequins.  He noted equivalences such as: 'Expenses at Padua - 10 P[auls] - 5 [shillings]', '6 Seq[uins] @ 21 P[auls] [=] 126 [Pauls] [or £]3.3.0', 'Naples ... 58 Carlins for a Pound Sterlg', '6 florins make 1 Seq[uin]', 'Imp[erial] Florin ... is equal to a Louis ... other florins take 13½ to / a Louis'; the difference in the value of a florin or other coin depending on the purity of its silver or gold.

Italian time-keeping

Soane's puzzling references in his sketch/notebooks to '18 o'clock', '21 clocks' and '23 o'clock' reflect 'Ore Italiane', the current system of time-keeping based on the 24-hour clock.  Traditionally, the start of the day was fixed at sunset, but from the mid-17th century it was usually reckoned half an hour later.  Thus sunset was timed at 23 hours 30 minutes, while the times of sunrise and noon varied through the year by about 3½ to 4 hours depending on latitude.  (From M. Talbot, 'Ore Italiane: the reckoning of the time of day in pre-Napoleonic Italy', Italian Studies, XL, 1985, pp.51-9.)

Italian weights and measures

Weights and measures within Italy were extraordinarily diverse, reflecting not only kingdoms and duchies but also cities, towns and localities. Soane mentions, for instance, foglietta and botta, calata and rubbio, in connection with the price of wine and of artichokes; and gives palmi in reference to the size of a bridge and a canal, and has a note that the Veronese piedi is the equivalent of 1 foot and 1 3/8 inches (which accords with 340mm given in R.E. Zupko, Italian weights and measures from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, 1981, Philadelphia, p.196).  And that a Florentine braccio is equivalent in length to 1 foot 10 and 9/10 inches (Zupko, op.cit. p.46, gives 584mm or 1 foot 11 inches).

P. du Prey, John Soane's architectural education 1753-80, dissertation for Princeton University, 1972, published Garland Publishing, New York and London, 1977, passim: P. du Prey, John Soane: the making of an architect, 1982, Chicago & London,passim; J.Inagmells, Dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy, 1701-1800, 1997, New Haven & London, passim; G. Darley, John Soane: an accidental Romantic, 1999, New Haven & London, pp.18-55; The Great tour of John Patteson 1778-1779, D.Cubitt, A.L.Mackley and R.G.Wilson (eds.), published by the Norfolk Record Society, volume LXVII, 2003, passim (letters home from a traveller who was a companion of Soane in Sicily and Malta)

Soane's next visit abroad, 1819

Between 1799 and 1815, the Napoleonic Wars closed the Continent except for a brief period after the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.  Thus war as well as a busy practice kept Soane at home for 39 years before he made his next (and last) trip abroad. This visit to Paris is recorded in an as yet uncatalogued note/sketchbook dated August and September 1819.

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