Newest Review: ... 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 hap... more
A house of surprises
Sir John Soane's Museum (London)
Member Name: dee778
Sir John Soane's Museum (London)
Advantages: Atmospheric and intimate
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
Summary: Keep it a secret!
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