I’d never heard of the Sir John Soane’s Museum until recently. Now it is one of my favourite places.
Free to visit, the museum was the vision and home of 19th century architect Sir John Soane, whose other famous projects include the original Bank of England, and interiors at Downing Street. Soane curated the collections of sculpture, paintings and furniture, as well as designed the building which has housed them ever since. He left it all to the nation upon his death in 1837 on the condition that it remained untouched essentially created a time-capsule which offers a tantalising glimpse into the history of collecting, design and the life of its namesake.
As an architecture enthusiast, I had been looking forward to my visit since I first learnt about it a few weeks earlier. It didn’t disappoint:
My arrival at the museum was abrupt. Walking from Holborn station, the row of three houses are nestled into the street’s row of terraces, although the distinctive façade of the central building is instantly recognisable. Welcomed on the steps by a friendly volunteer, I’m ushered to the basement floor to start my self-guided tour in the perfectly lovely - if somewhat plain - kitchens and workspaces.
Then, I enter the Crypt.
From here, it’s visual overload. Antiquities are everywhere, but light is sporadic; sometimes recessed in shadows, other times omnidirectional from a series of skylights. If buildings could talk, this one would have a lot to say. And perhaps only some of it would be intelligible to modern ears.
At the building’s heart is an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, carved from alabaster and covered in hieroglyphics. Soane was extremely proud of acquiring this prestigious piece and consequently held a series of evening parties to mark its arrival, lighting the space with 300 oil lamps. I hope that visitors to the museum’s candlelit ‘lates’ get a sense of this spectacle… if only because I’m already itching to explore this space at night myself.
The whole museum vaguely reminds me of a dreamscape, with the increasingly atypical architecture only helping to play up this factor. Some corridors are just 2ft wide, while the convex mirrors in the Breakfast Room make a dance of perspective. Heck, I’m pretty sure the Monk’s Parlour is missing half its ceiling, although hindsight and logic tells me that this was a lightwell. Suffice to say, it’s disorientating and surreal, yet completely charming all at once.
Moving upstairs to the living quarters, the Dining Room and Library have a more conventional layout. But even here the ancient world permeates through the ‘Pompeian red’ walls - paint supposedly replicated from a sample Soane pocketed while visiting the Roman ruins. Meanwhile, the Drawing Room is painted in an almost alarmingly bright yellow. Personally, I’d describe it as Colman’s mustard-esque, but apparently it was a favourite of Turner’s and once quite fashionable.
Other rooms hold collections of paintings, as well as some modern installations connecting Soane’s work to the present. It’s all interesting stuff, but after looking around the remaining rooms, I’m drawn back to the architectural fragments and plaster casts of the lower levels for one last look.
As I step back outside onto the pavement, squinting in the bright light which never fully finds its way inside historic houses, I know that I’ve just visited somewhere special. A museum created for the age of private collecting. A true cabinet of curiosities; an architectural laboratory; British eccentricity epitomised.
Back in the world of daytrip logistics, there are toilets and a gift shop on-site, and although there’s no café, discounts are provided for a recommended local eatery and the park at the front looks like a nice place to plan for a picnic. It’s also worth considering an off-peak visit, as the building’s low capacity can mean waits of up to an hour for entry at busy times – having said that, I visited mid-week in the Summer, and walked straight in.
Also, I’d suggest buying the guidebook on entry, and being prepared to ask questions. Written information about the exhibits is scant, albeit honest to the collector’s original concept. Instead, guides in each room will explain anything on request, and enthusiastically so. After all, it’s not just my favourite museum, it’s probably theirs. Quite possibly it will be yours too.
Location: 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP (approx. 5 min walk from Holborn station)
Admission: free, although there is a charge for some tours and ‘lates’, and donations are always welcome
Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm
Full image credit: John Soane bust by Matt Brown, via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
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