John Soane’s magician: the tragic genius of Joseph Gandy.

Once upon a time, there was a wizard who knew what Heaven and Hell looked like. In fact, he designed them. He also drew the greatest royal palaces that Britain has ever dreamed of, and a massive new Parliament building. He assembled complete, monumental cities and prototype skyscrapers. The name of this magician was Joseph Michael Gandy, and he did all this in the first few decades of the 19th century. Gandy was doomed to disappointment – he built very little in the real world, and was destined to be comprehensively eclipsed by another architect. He died a mad, penniless, abandoned old man. But he was no failure, because his extraordinary visions survive.

A new book and exhibition on Gandy brings him out from the shadows of his boss and mentor of 30 years, the revered Georgian architect Sir John Soane. Gandy worked as a draughtsman for Soane, brought his designs to life, positioned him as a visionary. And here is the strange thing. Gandy was a card-carrying Romantic, along with his contemporaries the poet Coleridge, novelist Walter Scott, and artist Turner. He had the required soaring imagination, but there is no question that the dry, academic, paranoid, social-climbing freemason John Soane was the better architect. From the blank-walled Casbah of his original Bank of England building – typically depicted by Gandy in the form of a huge classical ruin – to the pioneering, jewel-like Dulwich Picture Gallery which bizarrely doubles as a mausoleum, Soane was the true innovator, the Norman Foster of his day. He pushed the boundaries, he worked with light as much as stone. But he needed a sidekick he could trust, someone who would make him look good and never, ever, compete.

When the young man came knocking at Soane’s metal-studded pale green door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on January 8, 1798, his job prospects could not have been worse. The Napoleonic wars were at their height, mutiny was rife in the English fleet, the economy was paralysed, and Boney’s troops were expected to invade at any moment. Gandy was lucky to have made it back from Rome, where – as a prodigiously talented rising-star architect, winner of the Royal Academy’s coveted Gold Medal of 1790 – he had been drinking in the monumentality of the past. A man who lived by his emotions, he also got a morbid thrill from the many public hangings in the city: the state of terror in Rome under the yoke of the French was what threatened beleaguered London. Rushed home under diplomatic protection as the crisis worsened, the 26-year-old Gandy urgently needed work, and there was none to be had. He couldn’t even turn a penny as a box-ticking district surveyor.

But London had an architect with one big, important job. The Bank of England was financing the war, and expanding fast. Napoleon had correctly identified it as the real centre of Britain’s tattered imperial power, and Soane was its architect. Gandy asked him for work. And it seems that Soane, 18 years older and at the peak of his creative powers, needed just one glance at Gandy’s extraordinary drawings and paintings to take him on. Here was indeed a magician: a first-class “perspectivist”, someone who could turn his own more workmanlike drawings into high drama. Soane could design great buildings down to the last impeccable detail, but Gandy could add the special effects. He brought a theatrical swagger to the studio. The two men, with such different characters and talents, needed each other more than either at first realized.

This was a complex professional and personal relationship that was to last, on and off, for 30 years. Gandy went solo in 1801, left London, built a few interesting houses and a prison, published designs for some remarkably modern-looking rural cottages but failed to make much of a mark professionally. He always drifted back to Lincoln’s Inn Fields at intervals. As Soane’s biographer, Gillian Darley, says: “It is as if Soane’s architecture had been waiting for someone to translate his buildings from pleasing fair copies into a continuous narrative – a visual argument with which to confront a critical world”. But if Gandy released Soane from the straitjacket of convention, so Soane held Gandy’s wilder impulses in check. Left to his own devices, the young draughtsman could become dangerously unstable.

In these days of fantasy movies, Gandy would be one of the busiest men on the planet. Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, endless sci-fi movies – all demand the attentions of those people Walt Disney dubbed the “Imagineers”. In Georgian England, Gandy was the ace Imagineer. Today’s film-makers recognize this: the father of modern fantasy film-making, Ray “Jason and the Argonauts” Harryhausen, collects his paintings. Gandy probably would never have become a truly great artist, like Turner – though occasionally, in the early days, the two were compared. He tried his hand at great historical and mythical and religious subjects. You’ve heard of the stairway to heaven? Gandy painted it. Pandemonium? Ditto. In fact, heaven and hell appeared to be much the same in Gandy’s imagination – which is to say, great cities of supercharged classical palaces. Long colonnades and great domes. Old Nick’s domain was just a bit smokier.

Despite such ambitious independent attempts at fine art – which he showed without fail at the Royal Academy – Gandy was always at heart an architect and his subjects were nearly always architecture on a grand scale. He never got that kind of work to build, but Soane did – though never quite as big or as grand as he craved. The two men were therefore made for each other, and not just because the older man had the wherewithal to keep his amanuensis busy. They had a lot in common.

Both men came from the lower classes – Soane was the son of a bricklayer, Gandy one of the 12 children of a waiter at White’s Club. Both were teenage prodigies who were talent-spotted by wealthy patrons and catapaulted to stardom. But whereas everything went right for Soane, career-wise and socially (a fractured family life was the price he paid), Gandy had a much rougher ride. In fact, Gandy more or less wrote the book on being a central-casting misunderstood Romantic genius. He lived in rough Soho lodgings with his wife Eleanor and six children. Another three died. He found himself in debtors’ prison more than once, and finally died in the dank basement of a lunatic asylum outside Plymouth. A place so vile, even the not overly-fastidious health inspectors of the time declared it repugnant.

Life for Gandy was not all sturm and drang. He had his up periods, he enjoyed what he did, and he could always call on Soane to bail him out. But he didn’t make things easy for himself. The artist John Constable once wondered why Gandy hadn’t got on in society more, given his obvious talent. He made it to the lower orders of the Royal Academy, fostered by Soane – why no further? “I was shocked that such a man should never have been elected an Academician,” wrote Constable to a friend. “This I could well say because of the extraordinary praise of his genius.” Puzzled, he relates how he asked the sculptor Richard Westmacott what Gandy’s problem was. Westmacott’s answer was succinct. Gandy was just too damn bolshie. “He said he was a bad-mannered man, and was rude to any gentleman or nobleman who found fault with his designs, and would not alter his drawings,” Constable related. “This has much enhanced Gandy with me!”

It seems that there was only one man Gandy was not habitually rude to, and that was Soane. They had their tiffs, but never lost faith with each other. Indeed, towards the end of his career, the wealthy Soane was paying Gandy a handsome salary of £300 a year to paint on his behalf. This was on top of the many “loans” the celebrated architect made to his insolvent assistant to get him out of scrapes in his younger years – loans that can never have been paid back. But Gandy was constitutionally incapable of making money stick.

So here I am, standing in the Soane Museum today – the very house, the very place where Gandy and the boss worked. I’m glad these unlikely, insecure buddies found each other. Because the images that the exhibition’s curator Christopher Woodward is pulling out of the archives have an extraordinary power. Not just as works of art, but because of what they say about both men. Why did Soane sanction Gandy to depict the Bank as a ruin, almost as if it were in the desert? Partly because that was a fashion of the time, Woodward observes – it fitted with the Picturesque love of ruins and grottoes, after all. Partly because it was a clever way to reveal the complex internal layout. But also for a darker reason.

Soane had found himself under fire over his designs for the bank. He had had some bad reviews. He felt his work was under threat. He also knew that if Boney really did invade, he was going to head straight for the Bank with his cannon, in search of gold bullion. Gandy recognized his master’s fears and found they fitted neatly with his own dark imaginings. “I think Gandy very quickly understood Soane’s dark side – his mind, his personality,” says Woodward. “Ruins for Soane became how he expressed his darkest fears. There are dozens of letters between them. Gandy was closer to him than anyone.”

Soane used Gandy not only to glorify his current projects, but also to dig out and re-present unbuilt designs from his youth. Today this would be done by computer-graphic imagery: but all Gandy needed was paper and watercolours to make his virtual-reality world. Finally, the great architect used Gandy to record his built work – much as architects use specialist photographers today. Woodward shows me a sheaf of watercolours of Tyringham House in Buckinghamshire, which Gandy painstakingly painted from exactly the same angle at different times of day. It took him six months. As a photographer would, he brought these test shots back to Soane to approve. It seems his exacting master rejected them all and demanded a sunset shot instead. Gandy created one of his virtual-reality sunsets, and there was the classic architectural dusk-time shot, the type beloved by the high-tech set today. Soane and Gandy were not just architectural pioneers – they were early masters of the art of presentation techniques.

This is why, although he often faced hostile criticism, Soane also often got a good press. In 1826 at the Royal Academy he displayed his scheme for a monumental western gateway to London, part of a whole raft of projects he envisaged for a capital that had seen off Napoleon and now ruled the western world. The plan had been brusquely rejected, so Soane called in Gandy for a spot of spin-doctoring. The papers reviewed it, and the Sunday Times championed the design. Some anonymous predecessor of mine wrote, on 4th June that year: “It appears that the design, though estimated at a few thousand pounds only, was rejected by ‘the powers that be’ on the score of economy. If it be so…it was a very vile economy that has deprived the metropolis of a splendid ornament, and the time will come when the rejection will be viewed in much the same light as we now view the paltry feeling which rejected Wren’s plans after the great fire of London.” This was journalistic hyperbole – the design wasn’t that great, to be honest – but it shows how adept Gandy could be at beguiling the critics of the day.

The impoverished assistant was creating Soane’s image for posterity, every bit as much as Soane himself was as he gradually turned his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields into the obsessive, brilliant-but-creepy, museum of architecture we see today. Towards the end of Soane’s life, when he was all but blind, Gandy was effectively designing for him, adding sometimes surreal levels of ornament and detail to the master’s famously austere, pared-back classical style. Of course he never recovered from Soane’s death in 1837, or the wrangle over his will that followed. The old man had looked after his faithful dark shadow, as always, but his bickering family contested the will and delayed payment, as Gandy, with no income at all, faced destitution.

His last work was his most ambitious and impossible – a complete world history of architecture, linked to the history of mankind itself. Gandy wanted to show that he was a scholar, no mere painter of fantasies or other men’s work. He wanted to get down to the hidden, mystic meaning, the language, of architecture. Why is a pyramid different from a Greek temple? Gandy got lost along the way, but produced some enchanting paintings including one which is a budding skyscraper, each level a different architectural style. Come the 1930s in New York, and they were building this kind of thing for real.

It is not clear what finally tipped Gandy over the edge, what form his madness took, or indeed whether he was mad at all by today’s standards. Ironically it was the elderly Soane who was more widely regarded as being one column short of a portico. But he had money to protect him: Gandy did not.

Details are maddeningly vague. We know that Gandy’s family committed him to an asylum, but not exactly when: sometime between 1839 – two years after Soane’s death – and 1841, when the officers of the National Census found him in residence at Plympton House, a private-sector madhouse outside Plymouth. Official inspections repeatedly condemned it as filthy and overcrowded. Two months before Gandy’s death there, the latest set of inspectors from the Metropolitan Commission on Lunacy reported: “The whole of these cells were as dark and damp as an underground cellar, and were in such a foul and disgusting state, that it was scarcely possible to endure the offensive smell.”

On Christmas Day 1843, Gandy died. It is no surprise to find his death certificate giving dysentery as the cause – the MRSA bug of its day. And then he vanishes. We do not even know where he is buried. In one of his late letters, while still a free man, he had written: “We arise like sparks and perform a meteor course and are seen no more.” Nor was he. Except that, if you go to the library of the Soane Museum, you find a dark, plump-faced, lively-looking man with thick, tousled hair staring out at you from a portrait above the door. He’s in good nick for a chap by then in his fifties, with a lifetime of trouble behind him. That’s the mysterious Joseph Michael Gandy. Nobody ever understood him except Soane. And he’s not talking.

In his youth, Gandy had designed and built a prison, in Lancaster. As he neared his tragic end, he displayed one final design at the Royal Academy. The painting has been lost – perhaps destroyed. It was for a cast-iron necropolis, a city of the dead. Gandy had always been much obsessed with death and (having been banged up himself several times) incarceration. The final sad chapter of his life in that squalid Plymouth madhouse was surely worse than anything from his frequent nightmares. His successes, too, had been a kind of delirium. But what Gandy wrought was indeed magical. He gave immortality not just to himself but to Soane, one of the greatest architects who ever lived. His whole life was a sacrifice, and it was well worth it.

Text © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times Magazine, March 19 2006, as “Illusions of grandeur”.

The exhibition “Soane’s magician: the tragic genius of Joseph Michael Gandy” is at the Soane Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, from March 31 to August 12.

The new book “Joseph Gandy: an architectural visionary in Georgian England” by Brian Lukacher, is published by Thames and Hudson at £40.

Soane Museum website: