Most architectural exhibitions are about the buildings, but this one isn’t — it’s about the figures added to architectural drawings to show off the scale of the buildings.

These little figures, known as staffage, are sometimes simply decorative, sometimes used to show how a space might be used, or sometimes, deceptions to make buildings look bigger than they are. Although staffage has been used since mankind started creating art, it was the Georgian era that saw it take off as an essential addition to architectural drawings.

And the Sir John Soane Museum, which has a large collection of architectural drawings has dug into its archive to create this new exhibition.

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 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. The drawing is of Christopher Wren’s unbuilt design for the Greenwich Hospital, and then the comically small figures were drawn in by Knyff.

Whoever drew in the sailing boats on the Thames has clearly never seen one.

However, the tendency to exagerate the scale of buildings lasted through to and got worse during Victorian times. In modern times, we expect the figures added to architectural renders to be the correct size—not that it stops architects from trying other tricks to make buildings look impressive.

There’s a drawing here of other lost buildings, such as the Mews that would have stood where Trafalgar Square is today, unbuilt designs for Lincolns Inn, the Bank of England and a host of ancient ruins made more comprehensible by adding human figures into the drawings.

The figures added by staffage specialists are clearly off a template at times, and you might find yourself darting between two drawings where they note the same figures, reversed, have been used in both.

As an exhibition, although it’s mainly about the figures in front of the buildings, it’s hard to draw your eye from the background — the buildings — and notice instead the figures.

Although the venue must take a historical look back at the Georgian era of staffage, it was interesting enough that I left hoping someone is triggered into putting on an exhibition looking at how today’s architects choose which figures to use and where to place them, as those decisions affect the world around us.

The exhibition, Fanciful Figures, is at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 9th June 2024 and is free to visit.


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One comment
  1. MilesT says:

    Staffage is also a useful resource for period depictions of clothing, for people who want to re-create clothing of the era.

    Sometime you see more fanciful “staffage” on old maps as well

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