Each time I’ve gone to London friends have said, you must visit the John Soane Museum. This time, finally, I did. A very odd place it is too. Soane (1753 – 1837) was a leading architect of his day, responsible for numerous commissions around London, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the building that once housed the Bank of England. He was also an avid collector of antiquities, art and – well – curiosities.
From 1792 to 1824, Soane purchased, demolished and rebuilt three town houses on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, starting with No. 12 and moving on to 13 and 14 to display his architectural designs and models and his growing collection of antiquities. What the neighbours must have thought, as Soane rebuilt and extended, pushing number 13 out beyond the building line with a projecting and incongruous Portland Stone facade, I can’t imagine.
I think that Richard Dorment, writing in the Telegraph, captures the sense of the place very well:
The man who created it all was a discriminating collector with the hoarding mentality of a pack rat and a horror of an empty space. Sir John Soane displayed his collections with an eye for decorative pattern and symmetry, and not, as is usual in art galleries, to distinguish what is historically or aesthetically important from what is not.
And so superb Greek vases, Roman busts, 18th-century statuary, cinerary urns and a massive Egyptian sarcophagus are shown alongside charming watercolours by inconsequential artists, Sarah Siddons’s death mask, Napoleonic memorabilia and a portrait of Mrs Soane’s pet dog, Fanny.
True, masterpieces by Canaletto, Watteau, Turner and Hogarth hang in the tiny picture room on ingeniously hinged panels that fold open to reveal yet more pictures underneath, but somehow it’s not individual works of art you remember about a visit to the Soane, it’s the ensemble. With its top-lit galleries, double- height spaces and gloomy subterranean vaults, no building in London has quite the same atmosphere.
When Soane first opened the museum, visitors were not admitted in ‘wet or dirty weather’. We arrived as the place was opening for the day and frozen snow lay in the streets. The huddle of visitors were requested to wait in the street as the somewhat officious attendant oversaw the salting of the steps. There is no cloakroom, so outside in the street you are divested of bags and coats which are whisked away to some secret location.
This is no ordinary museum: the place is a bewildering jumble, a maze of rooms, corridors and annexes jam-packed with items of all descriptions. One minute you might be confronted by Roman marble statue of Diana of Ephesus. The next, edging along a narrow corridor lined with casts of famous antique sculptures of Aphrodite, Hercules and Apollo. Descend to the basement and you find the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I carved out of a single piece of alabaster. It was Soane’s pride and joy, purchased in 1824 for the sum of £2,000 from an Italian adventurer. When it arrived in 1825, he had to blast a hole in the back of the house to bring it through. To celebrate, he threw a three-day party, attended by 1000 people, including JMW Turner and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Every corner, every inch of wall space has been filled with curios, fragments of Gothic architecture, and paintings. Indecipherable things have been done to the internal layout of the house to create unexpected passageways and galleries, illuminated by skylights and a multitude of mirrors.
The highlight for most visitors is the Picture Room lined with drawings by Piranesi of Roman ruins and paintings by Canaletto. But what most have come to see are the Hogarths : An Election of 1754 and his series A Rake’s Progress that follows the decline of a hedonistic young aristocrat. Promptly, every half hour, an attendant unfolds hinged wall panels to reveal the series mounted on the reverse of the paintings you have been peering at over the shoulders of the throng crammed into the small room.
Before he died, Soane, fearful that the house and collection would be squandered by his prodigal son (does that account for the Rake’s Progress?) bequeathed the house to the nation by private Act of parliament on condition that the building and its contents would be kept unaltered in perpetuity.
Crunching through the frozen snow, I wandered through Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now a large urban square but at one time an expanse of open fields fringed by large houses. Until the 18th century this was the scene of public executions: in 1586 the fourteen Babington Plotters who had planned to murder Elizabeth I and install Mary Queen of Scots on the throne were hanged, drawn and quartered where I walked.
In a different time the first headquarters of the Labour Party, formed in 1900, were here: at number 3, then home of Ramsay MacDonald, the party’s first leader and, in the 1920s, its first Prime Minister. Lincoln’s Inn is one of the four surviving medieval Inns of Courts that trained legal apprentices. Alumni of Lincoln’s Inn include Thomas More, John Donne, Oliver Cromwell, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. There’s a list to ponder on.
- Sir John Soane’s Museum: Wikipedia
- The History of Sir John Soane’s Museum
- The Soane Museum collections
- Hogarth An Election (1754): images and description
- Hogarth A Rake’s Progress (1733): images and description