Museum Eye: Sir John Soane’s Museum

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

The dining room. Note the astronomical clock in front of the mirror to the right of the window.

The dining room. Note the astronomical clock in front of the mirror to the right of the window.

Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP
+44 (0)20 7405 2107, jbrock@soane.org.uk, www.soane.org
Tues.– Sat. 10.00am–5pm

by Tony Canavan

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of those squares typical of this part of London, in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses surround a green space. Number 13 does not particularly stand out among these grand buildings, except for the small queue of people outside it. I joined and duly waited as the guardian of the gate, a pleasant elderly man in a suit, admitted visitors in small groups. He explained that all bags had to be deposited and anything carried into the house had to be put into the clear plastic bags provided. I was already getting the idea that this was no ordinary house or museum.
Not until the hallway was clear and a few minutes’ head start given to four young Germans in front of me was I allowed to enter. I duly signed the visitors’ book and turned right into the library and dining-room. This was quite conventional. A table and chairs stood at one end and leather-bound volumes filled the shelves. A portrait of Sir John Soane by Thomas Lawrence hung on one wall, Love and Beauty by Sir Joshua Reynolds on the opposite one. Architectural models were on display and an impressive astronomical clock dating from the early 1800s stood on a table beside a window. It told not only the time but also the date, and an orrery of the solar system decorated its top. It was not until I stepped out of this room and into another that I realised I was entering an Aladdin’s cave of Greek and Roman antiquities and more recent paintings.
Soane was born in Berkshire in 1753, the youngest child of a bricklayer. He grew up to become one of Britain’s most successful architects, being most famous for the Bank of England. He moved into 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he redesigned, in 1792. In 1813 he moved into No. 13, which he rebuilt as a museum. He had travelled in Italy while studying architecture, and as professor of architecture in the Royal Academy he considered a museum of classical architecture and art to be essential in the education of ‘amateurs and students in painting, architecture and sculpture’.
It is difficult to describe the house in detail. The visitor is well advised to purchase one of the handbooks or, even better, go as part of an organised tour. The house is a maze on different levels, chock-a-block with statues, architectural features and art from the ancient world and later. Every room, whether small like the study or large like the picture room, is full of artefacts. Luckily, the rooms are labelled and have small boards in the shape of fans on which is printed information on the contents.

The picture room- a miracle use of space.

The picture room- a miracle use of space.

The study and dressing-room contain antique marble fragments from Rome and look out, as do other rooms, onto the monument court, which contains large architectural fragments such as columns and pediments, many of them salvaged from demolished buildings. Next comes the picture room, which is a miracle of use of space. It is a fairly small room but contains numerous paintings of people and places by eminent artists of the eighteenth century. The most arresting is the complete collection of William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, a story told in eight paintings of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell.
I left this room still reeling from sensory overload and went downstairs to the converted cellar known as the monk’s parlour. This is a kind of folly designed by Soane to represent the parlour and cell of a Padre Giovanni, an invention of Soane’s. A satire on the taste for the Gothic, including a fanciful dog’s grave, it also reflected the isolation and sense of persecution that Soane felt in the years after his wife’s death. The morbid atmosphere was not relieved by the crypt, which in part evokes a Roman catacomb, with real and replica artefacts, and also contains the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I (1303–1290 BC).
Interesting though the crypt was, I was glad to ascend the stairs to the light of the colonnade and dome, with its statues of gods and goddesses and heroes of antiquity. These works of art reflect Soane’s interest in the Renaissance belief that artistic perfection was achieved in a small number of ancient Roman and Greek buildings, which he was keen for his students to learn from. The centrepiece is a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere, the original of which is in the Vatican.
I found myself next in the new picture room, which, as the name implies, is full of paintings. It was added to the museum in 1890 to house three Venetian scenes by Canaletto but contains other paintings also. What caught my eye were a set of table and chairs made of ivory, seized in 1799 from Tipu Sultan after his defeat by the East India Company.
I drifted next door to No. 12 (they are all one institution now) to view the breakfast room with its painted ceiling and original furniture. Sadly, it no longer has the delightful view that is shown in a painting of the room from 1798 by Joseph Gandy. Also worth dwelling in for a while is the breakfast parlour in No. 13. It has views of the dome and monument court but its interior is what makes it worthwhile, since Soane tried out a few architectural tricks here with a shallow domed ceiling, hidden skylights and over 100 pieces of mirror to give the room added dimension.
Unfortunately my visit ended there, as the first-floor drawing-rooms were closed owing to a lack of staff on the day. Given the nature of the layout—hardly anything is behind glass—and the building, an attendant has to be in every room. On that note, it is worth stating that Sir John Soane’s

The dome, with its statues of gods and goddesses and heroes of antiquity.

The dome, with its statues of gods and goddesses and heroes of antiquity.

Museum is a charity and, apart from special tours and events, entry is free. It is certainly a suitable monument to Soane and his work. One could easily spend hours here, despite its being a comparatively small building. I have only been able to give a sample of what it contains and a flavour of its unique atmosphere. So if you are ever on a visit to London, I recommend that you take time to look at it.

The small study-like every other room, it is full of artefacts.

The small study-like every other room, it is full of artefacts.

 

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