Architect Sir John Soane’s former houses in the centre of London are packed with his extraordinary collection of paintings, archaeological objects, models and architectural drawings. It is beyond weird and the most fun you can have in a small museum. And as a bonus it has the sarcophagus of an Egyptian pharaoh.
The Soane is housed in three Neoclassical buildings which Sir John bought and rebuilt over a period of years between 1792 and 1823 on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and there’s really nothing museum-like about the place. What you get is a trio of tall, skinny Regency townhouses with masses of small rooms and narrow corridors, stairs and passages packed with his treasures collected over a lifetime. Because he was constantly redesigning and rebuilding the spaces to accommodate the needs of his personal and professional life, and constantly rearranging his collections, there are also some magnificent skylit courtyards where gardens and stable yards used to be, filled with more and more stuff. In fact, there’s such a profusion of items that it would be hard to describe them in this short article. There are over 30,000 architectural drawings in the collection and about 15,000 physical objects, all worthy of study.
There’s a small shop, where you can buy souvenirs, but no café or information desk. Labels are almost non-existent, so it is advisable to cough up the extra £15 to join a total of eight people for a 90-minute guided highlight tour. On my several visits the guides have been different, but in each case excellent, bringing their own interests and interpretations to the collection. Otherwise, entry is free, courtesy of Soane’s original endowment and later fiscal top-ups. The tour also gives access to some rooms closed to the wanderers, such as his private apartments and the model room, situated after she died in his wife’s bedroom. Here wonderfully detailed models of some of his building designs and the Roman ruins that inspired him are displayed above, below and around a detailed model of the Pompeii excavations as they were at that time.
Another bonus is a private viewing of the ingeniously designed picture room which has walls composed of large moveable panels that allow it to accommodate three times as many paintings as a space of this size could normally house. Some of the 116 paintings revealed for our brief viewing include a spectacular Canaletto, considered one of his top 10 works. However, my favourite painting in the entire collection is J.M.W. Turner’s “Admiral Van Tromp’s Barge at the Entrance of the Texel,” with its almost impressionistic sea and sky.
Because of space constraints, the number of visitors at any one time used to be restricted to 90 persons. Now, with Covid rules in place that number is halved. In addition, don’t be surprised (unless you have a timed tour ticket) to be asked to queue outside as there’s also no waiting room. If it’s raining (this is England after all) they provide large umbrellas.
The day before I visited the museum, I read an excellent article by freelance writer Laura Freeman in The Spectator. She is describing a visit to the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, which seems a similar spot. She tries to put her finger on what made her visit “so especially pleasing.” She writes that it is filled with “stuff, clutter, schmutter, swag, serendipity and superfluity. Too much to take in at one go.” I think she could just as easily be describing the Soane. She goes on to praise the Victorian age’s love of ‘whatnots’ and their displays of “ornaments, oddities, books, bonbonnières and figurines.” The whole of the Soane is filled with whatnots and I am delighted to introduce a new word to my dictionary.
A word about Sir John: he designed a great many buildings, but perhaps the most notable is the Bank of England building on Threadneedle Street in The City, where his skylight scheme first came into play. He was born into a working-class family, so it is amazing, given the era, that he was able to show early promise and gain an education funded by King George III himself. He was the son of a bricklayer and it was his father’s contacts with architects, plus a natural talent for drawing, that lead him to train as an architect. With innate talent and hard work, he won a prestigious gold medal from the Royal Academy, which funded a Grand Tour of Europe. His visits to spectacular ancient Roman ruins inspired a lifelong interest in classical art and architecture. The great classical columns which front his signature bank building serve as a supreme example of these influences.
It was the fact that he greatly disliked his eldest son, that the present museum came to be. He disapproved of his son’s marriage, his indebtedness and his refusal to work as an architect. The son retaliated by writing an anonymous article for a newspaper in which he called his father “a cheat, a charlatan and a copyist.” Not the basis for a good relationship. To ensure that the wayward son didn’t inherit the properties and contents, as he would have done under the rules of primogeniture, it required an Act of Parliament, which was eventually granted. On Soane’s death, in 1837, the Act declared that the house and collections would pass into the care of trustees, acting on behalf of the nation, and that they would be preserved as nearly as possible exactly in the state they were at his death. Apart from necessary preservation work, that’s how the properties and their contents remain today, a true miracle of preservation and a time capsule into a past life well lived.
Sir John Soane is not to be confused with Sir Hans Sloane, another eccentric with a passion for amassing the strange and wonderful. The latter’s gargantuan collection became the basis for the British Museum.
Not to be outdone in the Egyptology craze, Soane acquired the sarcophagus of Seti I, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs. After it arrived at his house in 1825, he held a three-day party to which nearly 900 people came. The artifact was installed in the crypt-like basement, lit in daytime by natural light from above, and over 100 lamps and candelabras for the opening. The basement level is purposefully cramped to create the image of a Roman catacomb. It’s also a bit spooky.
Because my beloved has spent most of her professional life designing furniture, and especially traditional mirrors, I was particularly fascinated by Soane’s use of reflection to brighten otherwise dimly lit rooms. Mirrors are everywhere, opening up the house with convex ones that create fish-eye views of entire rooms. Mirrors also increase room size or, as in the case of the library, fool the eye into thinking there’s another room beyond. The domed ceiling of the breakfast room, inset with a multitude of convex mirrors, has influenced architects from around the world. As my beloved studied at London’s Inchbald School of Design, she admits a visit to the house probably inspired and informed her own creations.
Getting there: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP – Holborn Underground Station (on the Central and Piccadilly lines) at the junction of High Holborn and Kingsway is a five-minute walk away. Book advance tickets or tours at the Soane Museum website.
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