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A Lesson in Aesthetics
Sir John Soane's Museum (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
Sir John Soane's Museum (London)
Date: 22/04/01, updated on 24/04/01 (410 review reads)
Advantages: No admission fee (though donations are encouraged), Great collection of antiquities, Well-informed and enthusiastic staff
Disadvantages: Cramped rooms, Museum is closed when full
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
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.
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.
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.
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