One of the things I love about London is its wealth of small, relatively obscure museums. I’ve written previously about Dr Johnson’s house, and just a few streets away, tucked into a quiet terrace in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is the remarkable Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I was lucky enough to visit last weekend.
Born in 1753, Soane rose from humble beginnings as a bricklayer’s son to become the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and one of the leading cultural authorities of the late Georgian age (he died in the year of Victoria’s accession to the throne). As a young man, he had won a scholarship to Italy, where he spent two years studying Roman ruins, an experience that was to influence him profoundly throughout his professional career. He was beginning to make his way as an architect, and had married and started a family, when he came into a life-changing fortune, and he spent it on amassing a collection of antiquities which came to fill first one, then a second and finally a third terraced house.
These three houses served several purposes. First, they were his family home, secondly they were a workplace for himself and a growing number of students of architecture, whose offices were there. But perhaps most importantly, he saw his collection as a highly didactic legacy, a place where future generations could experience what was best in the classical tradition, and use it to inspire their work.
This was the age of the Enlightenment, when people sincerely believed that mankind was ultimately perfectible, as long as people were exposed to high culture and dedicated to emulating and eventually surpassing the glories of the ancient world. It was also the age of wealthy people amassing huge collections of antiquities, with rather fewer of the moral scruples we have now about raiding others’ heritage. Soane’s house is a reminder that the British Museum itself developed from such endeavours, and in fact he proved to have rather deeper pockets than the BM on at least one remarkable occasion, when he paid £2000 for an Egyptian sarcophagus, now on display in his cellar.
He probably wasn’t an easy man; he was eccentric, opinionated, determined, and inclined at times to hold a grudge. He was devoted to his wife, but the four sons he had hoped would inherit his mantle were a disappointment to him. Two died in infancy, one in early adulthood, and the fourth was a gambler and a wastrel. Worse still, he attacked his father publicly and Soane never forgave him, not so much because it hurt his vanity as because he was convinced it led to the premature death of his beloved wife.
But out of Soane’s unsatisfactory family life comes our gain as a nation, because he left his home and its amazing contents to the public in perpetuity. Words, and even pictures, hardly do justice to this astonishing place, which draws gasps repeatedly from the parties touring around it, as they squeeze themselves into tiny corners and discover walls that open up to reveal two, and even three, layers of priceless paintings. Soane thought nothing of building a room with a gap between the walls and the ceiling and filling it with glass to get the light right, or installing a suspended dome and up to 100 mirrors in a modest breakfast room. He gleefully exploited every visual trick going to extend rooms beyond their original limits. He was so well-connected that Turner used to come along to his lectures and hold up pictures to illustrate important points – a sort of living Power Point presentation. And when he held a party to show off his new sarcophagus, it lasted three days and involved renting thousands of lamps to get the effect exactly right. Beneath the staid personage who designed the interior of the Bank of England lurked the soul of a showman.
Readers of this blog will know that I’m always intrigued when I find echoes of the iconic character of the Doctor in British culture. There’s something very English indeed about the magpie-like antiquarianism of the Time Lord’s wanderings and many of us have enjoyed imagining the vast halls of the TARDIS crammed with an eclectic collection of objects. Well, the very phrase “bigger on the inside” could have been invented for Soane’s house. So audacious and creative is his use of space that it really does feel at times as though he’s figured out a way to make multiple dimensions of space and time collapse in on themselves to cram everything into his astonishing home. You don’t have to venture far into the Soane Museum to lose all sense of direction as he challenges your perception of the apparently fixed realities of walls and ceilings. And you have to go there to appreciate it fully. There is no substitute.
It’s also worth planning ahead to join a tour. Ours lasted 90 minutes and the guide was enthusiastic, approachable and knowledgable, pointing out many things it would have been easy to miss and setting it all in context. But you could easily spend the rest of the day poking around and trying to absorb it, and I’m not sure you ever would. It’s a place to return to again and again, and it’s free (though there is a modest charge for the guided tour). For anyone interested in that fertile period of history as the Enlightenment gave way to the more sentimental excesses of Romanticism, Soane’s Museum is a must.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8354262/Sir-John-Soanes-Museum-the-museum-that-time-forgot.html (Note, the cloakroom and shop mentioned have now been added, but the private apartments on the upper floor as still not, as yet, restored.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/video/2011/sep/08/sir-john-soanes-museum Brief video (under 5 mins) that really captures the place’s atmosphere and its slightly creepy appeal