I have loved the Sir John Soane Museum in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields since my mid-teens. I used to walk up there after school sometimes. Then, as now, the museum was free, and I could wander about at will looking at the minutiae of Greek and Roman ornament, and the neoclassical interior decoration I liked best. When I was sixteen or so, I corresponded with the then curator, the great historian of Georgian London Sir John Summerson, because I was anxious to prevent developers from demolishing the last vestiges of the Bridewell Hospital, round the corner from my school in the City of London and I wanted to enlist his support. That last piece still stands, and an old schoolmaster of mine taunts me whenever we meet: ‘that was the building you saved.’
I still have Summerson’s successor, Dorothy Stroud’s biography of Soane on my shelves. There is a dedication to me by the author, sadly undated, but I think it was a present from my sister. Some pencil notes suggest I used it for the long essay I presented as part of my History of Art A-Level in 1973.
In those days I used to see the late architectural historian Gavin Stamp quite often. He had been a Cambridge contemporary of my brother’s. He was quite critical of Soane, and the clutter of the museum the architect donated to the nation in 1837. It was the clutter I liked best. I was reminded of this the other day when I was shown round the house by Tom Ryley, the desire to use every available space to display some beloved object reminded me very much of home. I wonder if I got it from Soane? Sure as eggs, Soane didn’t get it from me.
The Sir John Soane Museum occupies three houses on the north side of the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. The first of these was bought in 1792 with money from Soane’s heiress wife Eliza Smith. Ten years later he was able to acquire the larger number 13. Unlike the modest Georgian façade of 1812, Soane had something more grandiose in mind, not brick but Portland stone, and an eclectic façade involving caryatids, Greek key ornament, akroteria and some appliqué Gothic capitals. There was a loggia at first floor level, originally open, later glazed. The last changes occurred when Soane bought number 14 in 1825 and rebuilt it to create a unified composition with 12 and 13.
Since I was a regular visitor in the seventies, the Museum has spilled out into number 12. There is now a shop and a room dedicated to temporary exhibitions currently showing the drawings of the contemporary architect Eric Parry. The kitchens are available for ‘events’ exposing a lot of flagstones and what appears to be a Victorian range in a fine state of repair: the sort of kit you long to try out with a loaf of bread or a joint of beef. The main collection has changed but little, except that a few things were out for restoration when I was there. Soane was an inveterate collector. I was struck by how incredibly valuable some of the objects must be, and that the antique vases in the nearby British Museum can hardly rival such treasures as the Cawdor Vase or some of the Greek kraters and decorated amphorae. The most valuable of all is thought to be the Egyptian alabaster sarcophagus. A portion of these was acquired on the London market, others on his grand tour. I had a quick look at Soane’s books – a complete edition of the Encyclopédie came as no surprise.
In the Picture Room the paintings are hung in layers on shutters that can be opened up on request. Soane had the Hogarth series, A Rake’s Progress, as well as a wonderful Canaletto of the Riva della Schiavoni. It is hardly surprising to find some of the best of Piranesi’s Roman etchings hung there as well as a Watteau, a Reynolds and a Lawrence and other treasures from Flaxman and Fuselli. There are pictures of the Soane family too, including a brace of Fanny the dog. The Breakfast Room boasts two portraits of Napoleon, whom Soane admired. The one of him as a young artillery officer is thought to be the earliest image of him in existence. Naturally there are the architectural drawings too, including many by Wren and Adam. Among my favourite exhibits are the architectural models of Soane’s most famous works, like the old Bank of England. Upstairs I was able to see his model of Pompeii for the first time.
For neoclassical architecture lovers, the core of the house is the Library, Dining Room and Breakfast Room, possibly together with the Little Study and the Dressing Room with its early plumbed-in sink. This is the purest Soane with saucer domes and pendentives, convex mirrors and skylights sited to bring light into the murky depths of an extended London terrace house, and colour too: the famous Soane red, inspired by his visit to Pompeii. The backrooms and basements house a bewildering collection of castes and carvings as well as some fine pieces of Italian stained glass.
When architects abided by the classical tradition, these fragments had a huge practical relevance as trainee architects (and Soane always had pupils working with him) could copy them, learning how to reproduce say, a Doric entablature or egg and dart motifs. This becomes abundantly clear in the drawing office which is still filled with draws and tee squares, but has windows out onto the carvings and sculptures in the courts below so that pupils could reproduce them without entering other parts of the house. When the commission demanded it, Soane was not averse to designing in a Gothic idiom, and there are fragments of Mediaeval carving. There is the Monks’ Parlour too, where it is thought the Soanes invited people to tea.
Also new to me were the Private Apartments which were restored between 2011 and 2016. There are more models at the front and at the back Soane’s bedroom with some wonderfully restored original wallpaper. The house was made over to the state at Soane’s death; and so it remains. Neither of the architect’s two sons lived up to expectations. John Junior had died young, while George got into debt and criticised his father in an anonymous newspaper article, an action said to have hastened his mother’s death. He was consequently disinherited. George was not without interest, however: he managed to pursue a career as a playwright and published some early translations from Goethe.
There is a caveat for people planning to visit the Sir John Soane Museum for the first time: the ‘clutter’ does not always make for a modern museum experience. The jumble of casts and sculptures, of Ming vases and books, models and drawings is not labelled and to caption them would be to destroy the integrity of Soane’s legacy. The way the Museum is preserved will defeat anyone hoping to be spoon-fed: the exhibits are there to be discovered and treasured – so prepare yourself for a treat.
Giles MacDonogh is the author of fifteen books, mostly on history.