Architectural staffage on view at Sir John Soane’s Museum

London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum will present an exhibition entitled Fanciful Figures, which explores the history of the figures used in architectural drawing, known as ‘staffage’.

Drawing on the drafting practices of past and present, the exhibition will illustrate staffage’s ability to animate architects’ visions, both for built projects and unrealised designs.

The Georgians placed these figures, whether beautifully dressed, sociable or industrious, into their drawings to animate, add intrigue and enhance the aspirational appeal of their designs. They also played, and continue to play, an important role in indicating the scale and function of architectural elements and drawing attention to the special features of designs.

Will Gompertz, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, said: “Walking through our towns and cities, we are surrounded by hoardings, covered in architectural renderings filled with people to bring new developments and public spaces to life. But who is represented and what does each figure tell us about the world envisaged by the architect? We’re delighted to open up this conversation in Fanciful Figures, by exploring historical drawings from our collection and learning from today’s architectural innovators.”

Just as architects today use staffage to help prospective buyers imagine a life in and around new developments, these historic scenes were created to market new possibilities to audiences. They have, therefore, taken on a new significance as a means of signalling shifts in style, demographics, work, and culture. Between the city traders and happy families, street-side boxing matches and children riding in dog-carts, the figures celebrated in this exhibition help piece together a vibrant picture of both urban and rural life during Soane’s lifetime and earlier.

The exhibition draws largely from the museum’s own collection, including a very early instance of staffage by figure artist Leonard Knyff from 1695. This will be shown alongside works by Soane’s favourite draughtsman Joseph Gandy and a series of never-before-seen prints by Benedict Van Assen, both pioneers in this practice.

A specially commissioned film explores the representation of figures and communities in contemporary architectural drawing, illustrating the roles that these figures play in reflecting the values, priorities and aspirations of architects and their projects. The film discusses this subject with four prominent architectural practices: Nimtim, Muf, Office S&M and OMMX. At the cutting edge of their field, these architects question who is represented in architectural designs and what the impact of this representation of our shared spaces has on how we live.

This exhibition follows the Architectural Drawing Prize, hosted at Sir John Soane’s Museum, which celebrates the artistry and technicality of contemporary architectural drawing, much of which includes staffage in creative and unusual ways.

The historic works featured in Fanciful Figures are curated by Frances Sands, the museum’s curator of Drawings and Books. Frances said: “These figures are not essential to the subject matter of their drawings but are included to lend a sense of scale, depth, animation, and embellishment. They are not the figures one might see in a history painting, being essential features of the narrative, but are intentionally peripheral – a garnish to the architecture. From a contemporary perspective, I think this makes them particularly fascinating, because it reveals the unconscious intent and tastes of the architect.”