“ 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP. Tel: +44 (0) 20 7440 4263 Fax: +44 (0) 20 7831 3957. „
I have to admit that before my son suggested a visit to the Sir John Soane Museum in London, I had never heard the name before. My son is an architect student, and so knew that John Soane was both Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and a famous architect best known for designing the Bank of England; a building which had a profound effect on the future design of commercial architecture. Soane is considered to be one of England's greatest architects and his many designs include the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Treasury.
Soane died in 1837, leaving behind him a tall town house just next to Lincoln's Inn Fields. On his appointment as Professor of Architecture in 1806, Soane began to arrange his books, statues and models in order that his students could use them to study - and he allowed them free access to his treasures. He had designed his house both as a place to live and as a place to house the many works of art and antiquity that he had collected over the years - and the circumstances that surround the preservation of the house are quite unique. In 1833 Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament to preserve the house and collection for the benefit of 'amateurs and students' in architecture, painting and sculpture. On his death in 1837 the Act came into force, and each successive Curator has sought to preserve and maintain Soane's arrangements as he wished. A crucial part of their brief was to maintain the fabric of the Museum, keeping it as far as possible in the state in which it was left at the time of Soane's death in 1837. The result is a charming, atmospheric and extremely cluttered house which was a delight to visit.
The entrance to the museum is a small front door with several steps leading up to it. We had to queue for about 10 minutes as numbers are limited due to the tiny spaces and large amounts of items on open display. The queue was on the street, and we were lucky that it wasn't raining. A very cheerful lady curator kept us entertained with stories about the museum until it was our turn to go in, and the wait did not seem to be too onerous.
Before we went in we had to put all of our bags into a clear plastic carrier and carry these around as we visited. I imagine that this was to prevent thefts. Walking into the dark and narrow hallway we were invited to sign the visitor's book, and we also took the opportunity to purchase a small guide book for £2, which proved to be very useful as there is not a lot of signage once you actually step into the house.
Entry is free, but there are two donations boxes around the house, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we were happy to put money into these.
Each of the rooms has a curator looking after it, and they are all very enthusiastic about their work. As I entered the first room I commented on the colour of the red walls - the curator immediately told me that the colour was "Pompeii Red", created from a piece of plaster wall from Pompeii that Sir John had just happened to slip into his pocket as he visited. This tiny insight into the kleptomaniac nature of Soan's collecting gave us a clear idea of what to expect from the rest of the visit; there seemed to be thousands of tiny little pieces that Sir John had perhaps just happened to "slip into his pocket".
~~The Dining Room and Library~~
Soane used these rooms both to entertain guests and to hold his 7,000 books. This room is very beautiful, with a large fireplace; one wall lined with books and the whole place filled with works of art and sculpture. Even the ceilings are beautifully ornate, decorated with intricately painted panels. The curator casually mentioned that the three huge vases on the windowsill were original Ming. I was astonished that all of these valuable items were on display, without the protection of glass or a barrier - it really is preserved exactly as it was when Soane lived there.
~~The Study and Dressing area~~
Walking out of the dining room, I found myself in a long corridor which is lined with architectural fragments on shelves. This is Sir John's study and dressing area and it is here that you start to get a sense of the clutter that is the Soane collection; every surface and wall is lined with pieces of stone; the only thing breaking them up is Soane's desk and chair, placed in front of a large window.
~~The Picture Room~~
Emerging from the study I was immediately confused by space, the corridors and the number of items on display. To the left was an enormous space which centred around some stairs. I could see long corridors with plain wooden floorboards with many doorways and archways to the left and right.
I decided to head for the Picture Room, as the guides had told me it was very special. The room itself is absolutely tiny and can only take about 6 people at a time. The door is closed when it is full and you have to wait.
Amazingly there are over 100 paintings in this room, and some of them have had to be hung on a special door system which was Soane's own design. Soane called them 'movable planes' and they allowed him to hang twice the number of paintings in one small room. The huge wooden doors fold back over the walls via huge hinges, and have paintings hung on both sides. Opening them up reveals the original wall space with even more paintings.
The paintings themselves are breath-taking and once again hung without any barriers or glass to protect them from the public. The biggest is a Canaletto ('Riva degli Schiavoni'). It is considered to be the greatest of Canaletto's paintings and is a huge picture of Venice, which I just loved. Everybody was amazed to see two series of paintings by Hogarth; 'A Rake's Progress' and 'An Election'. These painting are almost caricatures and filled with detail. They are an amazing social commentary on the mid 1700s and each series tells a story. It is useful to read the story of the Rake (Tom Rakewell) before you view the paintings, as this will give the whole experience much more meaning. The whole room was awe inspiring and the curator was incredibly well informed and helpful, not hurrying us to move on at all even though there were some other people waiting to get in.
~~The Dome Area~~
This area links all of the other rooms together and is the largest space, containing so many statues, stone architectural features, urns, busts, etc that it is impossible to describe. The narrow corridors wind in and out of the shelving and cabinets with barely room to turn around and the whole space is just filled from top to bottom with too many items to take in on one visit. I loved the way that the exhibits just seemed to be plonked on the shelves without any signs or order - just as it was in Soane's day. The feeling of strolling through this space is similar to walking through a very large storage cupboard, with the skylights above letting through natural light and the dust motes flying through the air.
I was drawn down the stairs in the middle of the Dome by the sight of a huge white sarcophagus. It is possible to look down into the crypt via the stairwell and through grills in the floor, and the Sarcophagus is the biggest and most fascinating exhibit down there. The Sarcophagus is that of King Seti I, and is one of the most important Egyptian antiquities ever to be discovered. It is possible to stand on a small step and look right down inside to see the intricate hieroglyphics, as well as walking around the outside.
Soane wanted the Crypt to have an atmosphere reminiscent of catacombs or burial chambers, and it does have a dark and mysterious atmosphere. It obviously contains a lot more than the sarcophagus; the place is full of Roman busts and casts, urns which would have contained the ashes of the dead, and other sculptures.
Rather less romantically, the men's and women's toilets are also located down here. One of each, but both very clean and well maintained.
Other rooms include the Breakfast Parlour and two first floor Drawing Rooms, as well as the Monk's Parlour and Yard. All of these are equally lovely to wander through and I spent a lot of time just trying to take in all of the exhibits as well as looking at the preserved furniture and fireplaces. Even the carpets are exact replicas of Soane's original Axminsters.
There are several rooms on the second and third floors that are not open to the public, and the Museum has embarked on a project called Opening up the Soane, which started this year. This is a £7 million project to restore the private apartments, the model room, the Tivoli Recess and the Ante-Room - all of which will retain the special atmosphere of the house itself but make even more exhibits available to view.
The Soane Museum has been described as" the supreme example of the house museum in the world", and I certainly enjoyed my visit. It is not a well known museum and part of me wants it to stay that way - the quietness of the place, the dark corners, the idiosyncratic character, the clutter - all of this would be spoiled by crowds of people.
It is obvious that the people who run the museum love it too; all of the staff were enthusiastic, friendly and full of information about the exhibits. I loved the informal feel of the museum and the atmosphere of the small but beautiful rooms was very special. I will certainly be visiting again.
Access for physically disabled people is currently limited, but staff can provide especially narrow wheelchairs which can fit the narrow corridors if they are contacted in advance.
Toilets are located in the basement, without disabled access, but the Museum hopes to have a lift in place by Summer 2012.
The Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm.
Admission is free for everybody.
There is a public lecture tour every Saturday at 11am (only 22 tickets available per day) Cost £5, or free to students
Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields
London WC2A 3BP
Tel: 020 7405 2107
Another of London's least well-known tourist attractions is the Sir John Soane's Museum, located on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Why it should be so little known is something of a mystery, as it is certainly one of the most intriguing and fascinating collections of antiquities in the city, and with no entrance fee, it is surprising that so few Londoners know about it! In fact, casting my eye over the visitors' book by the entrance to the museum, I noticed that the majority of the museum's visitors are from abroad – so maybe it's only mentioned in foreign guidebooks... Certainly the museum does little to promote itself, partly due to its limited financial resources, I suspect, and partly because the museum really isn't big enough to cope with an enormous influx of visitors. In fact, I noticed a sign hanging by the door that, presumably to be displayed outside the museum when appropriate, saying that the museum was full, and therefore no further visitors would be admitted. ESSENTIAL THINGS TO SEE - The Picture Room - Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress' and 'An Election' - Pharoah Seti I's sarcophagus - Canaletto's scenes of Venice HISTORY Sir John Soane was one of England's greatest architects – he was responsible for designing (among other things) the red phone box, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, HM Treasury, and the Bank of England. He was born in 1753 in Berkshire, moving up to London at age 15 to study architecture at the Royal Academy. His work won him a scholarship to travel around Italy for two years – an expedition which was to massively influence Soane's tastes and designs. Upon his return to the United Kingdom, Soane showed great passion and enthusiasm for architecture, and in 1788 he won the commission of architect to the Bank of England. He married and had two sons, and bought and rebuilt No. 12 Lincol
n's Inn Fields in 1792 as a home for his family, with an office at the back. In 1813, he acquired the neighbouring No. 13, which he rebuilt not only as an extension to his house, but also as a Museum. He had taken the position of Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and decided to display his acquisitions in his home, to educate and inspire amateurs and students. When his wife died in 1815, Soane lived alone in the house until his death, constantly expanding and rearranging his displays. In 1823, he bought and rebuilt No. 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields, renting out the house, but using the house's stable yard to extend his Museum. Soane's redesigned fronts of the three neighbouring houses formed an imposing symmetrical façade looking out upon the square of Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1833, by an Act of Parliament, Soane established the house as a Museum open to the public, insisting that after his death, the museum should remain in as close a state to how he left it as possible. This is exactly what has occurred. Soane died in 1837, and ever since then, the house has remained open to the public. A substantial restoration programme was carried out between 1990 and 1995, and now the house's rooms appear almost exactly as they did on the day of Soane's death. VISITING THE MUSEUM Upon arrival at the museum, you have to ring the doorbell to be admitted, and enter the narrow corridor of No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields. You're welcomed to the museum by one of the museum's many members of staff, who mans a desk of souvenirs (books and postcards). It's a good idea to buy the £1 leaflet here, which describes Soane's recommended route around his museum, as well as pointing out some of the most interesting pieces on display in each room. From the corridor, you proceed into the Dining Room and Library of No. 13. The design of the room reveals that Soane had an eye not only for exte
rnal appearance of buildings, but also for their interiors. The rooms are 'Pompeian red' in colour, a shade reportedly based on a piece of wall plaster that Soane picked up while visiting the excavations at Pompeii. Soane made extensive use of mirrors around the walls to increase the apparent size of the room, which certainly works in the front Library area. In the Dining Room, you get an initial impression of the diversity of the items that Soane collected. On the east wall, above the fireplace, is an 1828 portrait of Soane, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, positioned above a model of the buildings designed by Soane to be built on either side of Downing Street on Whitehall. In the event, only one of the two was actually constructed – that which houses Her Majesty's Treasury. Opposite the portrait of Soane hangs a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is titled 'Love and Beauty' according to the guide leaflet, but actually bears the title 'The Snake in the Grass'. On the northern windowsill of the Dining Room are a collection of vases collected by Soane, including a pair of Chinese vases, and an Apaulian vase (from the 4th century BC). As if this weren't enough to take in, the chairs in the Library are stunningly intricate Cantonese constructions, made from padouk wood, and meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Also, these rooms give a good introduction to one of my most earnest suggestions to visitors to the museum – to look up! Virtually all of the rooms of Soane's museum have impressive and beautiful ceilings, featuring intricately painted panels or domes. The Dining Room, for example, has panels painted by Henry Howard RA, on the theme of 'Pandora's Vase'. From the Dining Room, you head through a narrow study area, the walls of which are lined with fragments of marble sculptures and buildings. Soane acquired these when their collector, Henry Holland, died in 1816,
and arranged them around the walls of these rooms. In any other museum, these pieces would be sterilely displayed in cabinets, carefully labelled with descriptions – but in Soane's house, the pieces are seemingly randomly displayed for aesthetic, rather than historical, reasons. This typifies Soane's style of collecting and displaying pieces – he hasn't acquired pieces necessarily for their artistry (though in many cases, the artists' skills are unquestionable) but more often for their aesthetics. Soane has bought things that please him, and has striven to display them in a way that will please everyone. Beyond the study is a dressing room, the walls of which are peppered with plans, drawings, etchings and sketches – plans of a dog house hang above a street map of Paris, and William Hogarth's 'The Oratorio' hangs near a street scene by Canaletto. Soane, again, seems to have decorated the room with pieces that please him, and arranged them in a fascinating way. To the north of the dressing room is 'The Corridor', a narrow space, again filled with marbles and casts. These are generally older than those in the study, but again represent a broad cross-section of styles and ages, arranged in a strictly ordered but seemingly haphazard way. A cast from the now-demolished Westminster Hall hangs near a cast of a cornice and part of a capital from the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome, for example. THE PICTURE ROOM To the east of the Corridor is what, for many, is the museum's biggest draw – the Picture Room; the construction that Soane built on the stable yard of No. 14. The most famous works in the Picture Room are two series of paintings by William Hogarth. The first of these, hanging on the east wall, is his 1733 work, 'The Rake's Progress', depicting the calamitous life of Tom Rakewell over six canvases. The other, 'An Election' (1754), is a politica
l satire, consisting of four paintings. 'An Election' is usually split with two panels on the north and south walls – however, when I visited the museum, the paintings had been temporarily moved to an exhibition in another area of the museum. Hogarth's paintings are awash with detail, much of it heavily symbolic. In the first panel of 'An Election', for example, we see the Whig party hosting a party to tempt voters while a Tory mob clamours outside the inn. Figures are shown kissing old hags in an attempt to woo their vote, another figure is knocked on the head by a brick thrown through the window by the mob, a young boy adds more alcohol to the punch, and so on. These are truly incredible paintings, and really well worth a visit to the museum on their own. However, there are a great many pictures in the room in addition to the Hogarths. On the west side of the room, hang portraits of Soane and his wife by John Jackson, and on the south side are several scenes from India by William Hodges. There are more pictures in the room than first meet the eye, however. The walls on the north, west and south walls are all, in fact, hinged screens, behind which hang more pictures. Behind the screens on the north side are fifteen stunningly detailed sketches by Piranesi of temples at Paestum in Italy, along with a watercolour by Turner of Kirkstall Abbey, and several fanciful paintings of ruins by Clérisseau. The south wall hides an even more intriguing collection of works, many of them by Soane himself. Though, for me, the most interesting of the works behind the south screen are watercolours by Joseph Gandy illustrating Soane's designs. One piece depicts a fantastical room containing models of all of the buildings designed by Soane that had been constructed by 1818, and another shows a landscape peppered with Soane's building designs that were rejected. A second set of screens on the south wall open
up to reveal a statue of a nymph by Sir Richard Westmacott, as well as allowing you to look down into the Monk's Parlour in the basement of the house. Just as a quick note, members of the public visiting the museum cannot open the screens on the walls of the Picture Room – you have to ask the staff to open them for you. This is less of a hassle than you might think, because a member of staff is always on hand in the room, and is invariably extremely well informed about the works on display, and able to answer any questions you might have. CONTINUING THE TOUR Heading down a set of stairs just outside the Picture Room leads down into the basement. In an area termed 'The Monk's Parlour' after a monk whose tomb can be found in the yard behind the house, Soane has achieved a melancholic feel. The room is decorated with dark colours, stained glass, and Gothic ornaments. A wooden skull stands in the centre of the table, and casts of carvings from Westminster Hall are arranged on the wall beside the fireplace. To the west of the Monk's Parlour is a crypt area, designed to recreate the feel of Roman burial chambers. It's a sombre area, decorated with plaster models of monuments, including the one marking the grave of Soane himself. In an area referred to as 'The Sepulchral Chamber' rests one of the most important Egyptian antiquities ever to be discovered – the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I, carved from a single block of alabaster. The hieroglyphics on the sides of the sarcophagus are clearly decipherable, despite the age of the object. The cover has been removed, and sections of it are displayed in a room to the west – which also contains cork models of Etruscan tombs and Stonehenge. Returning to the ground floor, in the area above the sarcophagus is a tremendous dome around which are arranged an extensive collection of Greek and Roman sculptures and casts. There is a parapet dire
ctly above the sarcophagus, allowing light to reach the basement. A bust of Soane, sculptured by Sir Francis Chantrey, stands on the east side of the parapet looking out over the sarcophagus. To the west of the dome is the New Picture Room, added to the museum after Soane's death to display three paintings by Canaletto of the city of Venice. These are truly incredible paintings, rich with detail, and showing Canaletto at his most masterful. From here, visitors head south through the Anteroom which contains a watercolour by Turner, through to No. 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1995, these rooms were extensively restored. The back Breakfast Parlour was restored according to a watercolour by Joseph Gandy, and the front Dining Room was converted into the Soane Gallery, which is used for temporary exhibitions. At the time that I visited the museum, the gallery was displaying Hogarth's 'An Election' series alongside political cartoons by contemporary artists, which will continue until 25th August 2001. Following the tour, we return to the Breakfast Parlour of No. 13, a room designed by Soane to illustrate effects constituting the "poetry of architecture". It's a brightly lit room, given its size, and is decorated by some interesting pictures, including several portraits of Napoleon. From here, we can return to the hallway, and proceed upstairs to the First Floor Drawing Rooms, which are relatively spartan, but decorated with several impressive paintings, including Turner's 1831 painting of Admiral van Tromp's Barge. NOTES Many of the rooms in Sir John Soane's Museum bear labels on the walls indicating compass directions, so that you're unlikely to lose your sense of direction, and can always find the objects referred to in the guide leaflet. The museum staff are easily the most enthusiastic and interesting that I have ever encountered in a museum, and can be easil
y recognised by their green jackets. They seem genuinely interested in Soane's life and the pieces in his collection, and are keen to talk about it – so if you've got time to spare here, you can learn a great deal. CONCLUSIONS Sir John Soane's Museum boasts an incredible collection of antiquities, and is completely free of charge. It is astonishing that so few Londoners are actually aware of the existence of the museum, and it's a great pity. Oddly, however, the museum seems to play host to large numbers of parties of teenage American tourists, some of whom even stop concentrating on chewing their gum long enough to look at the objects on display. The museum is easy to get to, located just a couple of minutes walk from Holborn underground station, and is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday. On the first Tuesday of each month, the museum is open from 6pm to 9pm, illuminated by candelight, radically altering the appearance of the place.
Sir John Soane's Museum (often abbreviated to the Soane Museum) is a museum of architecture, and was formerly the house and studio of the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. It holds many drawings and models of his projects and the collections of paintings, drawings and antiquities that he assembled. The Museum is located in the Holborn district of central London, England, overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields.