On Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the heart of London’s legal district, sits the former home of the celebrated nineteenth-century architect, Sir John Soane (1753-1837). Today, the property is a museum, which houses the extraordinary collection of objects which Soane amassed in his lifetime; all left, just as they were on his death. It is a unique and very special place.
The museum consists of three linked town-houses, which were extensively remodelled by Soane, who worked in the Classical tradition. It was created by Act of Parliament, as Sir John was determined to disinherit his wastrel son and could only do so by changing the law. (One of the museum’s most celebrated artefacts, Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, is a series of paintings which depict the sorry fate of a profligate young man. Was this intended as an unsubtle paternal rebuke to Soane Junior?)
Soane’s Act was duly passed, despite young George’s strenuous objections. Unfortunately, its terms mean that labelling and signage within the building are kept to a minimum, so the visitor is left to wander through the maze of rooms with little in the way of context. Nonetheless, there is much to marvel at. Walls teem with architectural fragments. Look up, and you will see vases and busts perching on picture-rails; turn round too quickly and you will narrowly miss a column-base. The over-arching impression is one of exquisite clutter.
There are so many highlights to the collection that it is difficult to single out items for special mention. The museum’s most expensive acquisition (the nearby British Museum turned it down, on the grounds of cost) is the sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh, Seti I. He, as one of the many knowledgeable members of staff who are available to answer questions reminded me, had a supporting role in the film, the Mummy; students of Egyptology may prefer, however, to focus on Seti’s great military and artistic achievements. Part of the museum’s back wall had to be demolished to get this huge mass of calcite inside the building and it is now displayed, under the dome, at basement level. Its interior is also visible from the gallery above, so that the visitor gets an excellent bird’s-eye view of the sky-goddess Nut. Sadly, the sarcophagus is damaged – the lid has long-since been smashed and the blue inlay which picked out spells and rituals from the Book of Gates has fallen out, thanks to an unfortunate combination of environmental pollution and over-zealous cleaning. Nonetheless, it remains spectacular.
Other highlights of the museum include works of art by Turner and Canaletto and (my personal favourites) the grotesque corbels in the superbly Gothic Monk’s Parlour. However, all the objects are a delight - even the bizarrely “restored” Greek vase in the Breakfast Room, which I initially assumed was a fake, although, it is, in fact, genuine.
The basement kitchens have only been open to the public since 2016, but they provide a reminder that Soane and his family were not the only inhabitants of the house. Certainly, the modern visitor, looking at the single, shallow sink, will pity the poor scullery maid who will have stood there every day, washing an endless stream of Wedgwood plates.
I first visited Sir John Soane’s Museum with my friend Aidan a long time ago and have been back many times since. It is a standard stopping-place on my “London tour” for first time visitors. I thoroughly recommend it.
Admission to the museum is free, but because of COVID, there are currently restrictions on visitor numbers and pre-booking is essential. For more information see:
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Anne Hardy has just finished her BA in Classics at Birkbeck, University of London, and is about to start her Masters. However, archaeology is still her first love and she still knows where her trowel is.