Long before he came to Wotton, Soane had been developing the concept of the ‘Tribune’ (or ‘Tribuna’ as he often referred to it) as an architectural feature in his commissions. It derived from the place in a public square where Roman tribunes – officials akin to modern shop-stewards appointed to protect the rights of the people – spoke, on a raised platform or dais with a canopy or baldaquin overhead. In Soane’s hands the term came to mean a full-height atrium lit from above by a hole (‘oculus’) in a roof-dome, as in the Rome Pantheon, and from the side by windows at first floor level. It occupied the central place in the floor plan with a gallery wrapped round it at first floor level. Other architects before him had played with the idea, but Soane practised it extensively in both public and private settings and perfected it as his personal trade-mark.
His work at the Bank of England and National Debt Redemption Office for which he designed top-lit banking halls gave him the technical know-how to make these tribune spaces as wide and as tall as he wanted them. Visiting Wotton very soon after the fire, he saw that the height of the house (three floors over a basement) ensured that even if he lowered the roof-line a bit, a triple-storey tribune passing through the second and first floors to the entrance hall below would retain much of the vertical drama of the burnt-out ruin. The Wotton Tribune is in fact the grandest surviving example of this quintessential Soanian feature, rivalling in scale and dramatic impact his most important (but now mostly destroyed) public works in London and surpassing the examples at nearby Tyringham or Moggerhanger.
Its grandeur is enhanced by the armorial shields of the Grenville family placed round the perimeter of the rectangular opening at first floor level. When A S G Butler re-configured the Wotton interior in the 1920s he demolished Soane’s Tribune but the then owner, Michael Beaumont, took the shields down and gave them to the Bucks Archaeological Society and Aylesbury County Museum where they were carefully preserved until being returned to the house on semi-permanent loan in 2015.
Other distinctive features of the Wotton Tribune include the decorative use of wood-graining, rather than stone effect, and the sleight-of-hand whereby the openings progress seamlessly from a circle at the top via a square at second-floor level to a rectangle at the first floor. Soane’s devotion to the classical principle of symmetry is evidenced by his treatment of door and window openings in the hall proper. He conceived the ground floor as a miniature Italian street scene: the floors are paved with Cotswold stone (the black and white marble squares were inserted by A S G Butler as part of his 1920s makeover); the walls are ‘rusticated’ to resemble the exteriors of Italian public buildings; and the southern end of the corridor is overlooked by a pair of dummy windows.
Soane’s hall appears to have been heated by hot air rising from a hypocaust system in the cellar and by a small fireplace under the stairs. The present fire-place was inserted later, probably around the turn of the last century. At the same time Soane’s curved and cantilevered stone staircase adjacent to the Tribune was extended up to the second floor (in closely matching stone and Soane detail) to allow easier access to the bedrooms at the top of the house (previously they could only be accessed by secondary stairs).
New openings formed in the wall between the two spaces created cross-views that surpass what Soane himself had envisaged in his plans. The mural on the south wall of the first floor landing was painted by Alfons Purtscher, an Austrian artist. The reclining marble figure is a copy by C. Rossi of Canova’s famous portrait of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese.
The 1957 – 62 restoration project overseen by Donald Insall on behalf of Mrs Brunner re-instated most of the Soane interior but stopped short of restoring the Tribune which was felt to be too ambitious and costly. In 2007 her daughter and son-in-law April and David Gladstone, having established that key parts of Soane’s structure had survived under the later layers, engaged Ptolemy Dean Architects to seek Listed Building Consent for the removal of A S G Butler’s alterations and re-instatement of Soane’s Tribune. The application was successful and in the course of the next 8 years the restoration project proceeded in three stages, starting with the dome. It was carried out by a small team of local craftsmen under the Estate Manager, Michael Harrison, following faithfully the plans in the Soane Museum together with evidence of modifications revealed as work progressed. It became clear that Soane’s design had evolved and was only finally settled by the architect directly with the craftsmen on site.
In accordance with the strict conditions of the Listed Building Consent, only traditional building materials were used, such as oak laths and lime and horse hair plaster.
The completed project was entered for the Georgian Group Architectural Awards 2015 and won joint first prize in the category Restoration of a Georgian Interior.