07.04.2015
14:01

Sir John Soane's Museum

Address:

13 Lincoln Inn’s Fields, WC2A 3BP

Phone:

020-7405 2107

Website:

www.soane.org

Opening times:

Tues–Sat 10:00–17:00 (first Tues in the month 18:00–21:00 by candlelight)

How to get there:

Tube: Holborn

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Shop

This extraordinary house on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the largest square in central London, was the home of Sir John Soane (1753–1837), one of England’s most important and original architects. The façade, of Portland stone and red brick, with its projecting loggia and incised lines representing pilasters, daringly modern in its day and considered by many a ‘palpable eyesore’, and with two large standing Coade Stone caryatids, based on those from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, hides the most unexpected interior in London. Designed by Soane to house his ever-growing collection of antiquities, marbles, plaster casts, porcelain, paintings, watercolours, books and an enormous array of architectural drawings, the unusually-shaped rooms are crowded with works of art. Cunning use is made of surprise vistas and changes of level. Carefully positioned mirrors reflect light and judiciously placed possessions; ceilings are punched through to admit shafts of light at desired angles, dramatically falling on walls encrusted with sculpture and architectural fragments. Windows of rooms overlook courtyards packed with sculpture, and in the basement are solemn Gothic cloisters and cells, originally lit by light faintly penetrating through stained glass. The whole creates an overwhelming labyrinthine effect. In March 1825 Soane threw a three-day party to celebrate his most magnificent purchase, the sarcophagus of Sethi I. Eight hundred and ninety guests, among them J.M.W. Turner, Coleridge, Robert Peel, Lord and Lady Liverpool and Sir Thomas Lawrence, viewed his home-cum-museum by lamp and candlelight, the flickering light shimmering in the mirrors and illuminating the spaces with dramatic chiaroscuro. The drama of the presentation was deliberate, and the museum today is open for evening candlelight viewings.

 

The House

Soane’s house is in fact spread over three. In 1793 he purchased No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he demolished and rebuilt to his own design, converting the back to house his architectural office. Here he and his wife Eliza and their two children lived until 1813, when they moved next door, to No. 13, which Soane had purchased in 1807 and architecturally transformed in 1812. No. 13’s long-suffering sitting tenant, George Booth Tyndale, moved to the front portion of No. 12 in a swap, the back being joined to No. 13 which extended Soane’s office and created the dramatic Dome area, used to display his architectural and sculptural fragments. This area was further extended in 1824 with the purchase of No. 14. Again, Soane rebuilt the old terrace house, the front being let to tenants while the back was appropriated for his own use, linked to No. 13: the Picture Room was created (where he displayed his important Hogarths), with the Monk’s Parlour below. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields Soane was able to continue and perfect architectural ideas he had used elsewhere: at his magnificent Bank of England, his country villa at Ealing, Pitshanger Manor (see p. 235) and at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as well as countless other public and private commissions. Throughout his life Soane was remodelling rooms and rearranging his extending collection. In 1816 he had purchased the collection of antique marbles collected in Rome in the 1790s by Charles Heathcote Tatham for Henry Holland, and in 1818 he bought from Robert Adam’s sale a large number of marbles, terracottas and casts. He considered a ring with a strand of Napoleon’s hair one of his most treasured possessions. Today the collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, casts, bronzes, gems and medals, ceramics, oil paintings and watercolours, 8,000 books, 30,000 architectural drawings (including those by Adam) and 150 architectural models, displayed in their astonishing surroundings, is one of Soane’s most extraordinary legacies. By the end of his life Soane was already referring to the ground floor of Lincoln’s Inn Fields as ‘the Museum’. He bequeathed it to the nation by Act of Parliament in 1833.

 

Tour of the Museum

The Hall is painted in imitation of porphyry, its staircase, with its occasional niches and alcoves, winding up to the top of the house. To the right of the stairs is the Library and Dining Room, conceived as one space, the Library at the front of the property, the Dining Room at the rear. Painted a rich, glossy Pompeian red, an arcaded screen-like division, suspended from the ceiling, divides the two spaces, its two mirrored piers on either side of the room arranged with objects, including the model of the Soane Monument. Made in 1816 after the death of Soane’s wife Eliza, the actual monument stands in the burial ground of St Giles-in-the-Fields (now St Pancras Gardens, near St Pancras Station). Elizabeth Soane, his son John and Soane himself are buried there. Mirrors in the recesses above the bookcases, made for the room by John Robins, give an impression of a room beyond. The mythological ceiling paintings, with scenes from the story of Pandora, were commissioned from Henry Holland and positioned in 1834. Over the Dining Room chimneypiece is Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Soane (1828–29), one of his last works, and below it a model of the Board of Trade offices which Soane designed at the entrance to Downing Street. Convex mirrors, canted forward, reflect the entrance from the Hall, and mirror-backed niches contain sculpture. It was in this room that Soane exhibited his large collection of antique vases, or ‘Grecian urns’, the most celebrated being the large ‘Cawdor Vase’, an Apulian krater of the late 4th century bc. The Dining Room window overlooks the astonishing Monument Court. Soane designed for its centre a tall ‘pasticcio’ composed of capitals representing various styles of architecture, topped by a cast-iron finial, which was dismantled in 1896.

Approached from the Library is Soane’s Study, a small room also painted Pompeian red, crammed with marble fragments from the Tatham collection, displayed on shelves and brackets of ‘bronzed’ green. Above the door to the Dining Room is a large cast of the Apotheosis of Homer, taken from the marble relief purchased by the British Museum in 1819, originally in the Palazzo Colonna, Rome. The oak-grained Dressing Room, with an elaborate ceiling in Soane’s late manner, contains Giovanni Bandini’s terracotta model for the figure of Architecture, one of two which flank the tomb of Michelangelo in Santa Croce, Florence, designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564, as well as G.B. Guelfi’s terracotta model for his monument to James Craggs in Westminster Abbey. The Corridor is a forest of architectural plaster casts, lit by a long skylight, in Soane’s day filled with tinted yellow glass admitting a mellow light. On the east wall is a convex mirror with a view westwards down the Colonnade, below it an 18th-century terracotta plaque showing Britannia, possibly by John Bacon (1740–99). To the right an aperture offers a glimpse into the Picture Room Recess.

The buildings at the back of the house were designed for Soane’s ‘Museum’ but also for drawing rooms and offices for his successful architectural practice. At the north end of the Corridor, up the stairs, is the Upper Drawing Office, its walls lined with architectural fragments and casts. The long drawing desks, their drawers originally filled with drawings and plans to aid his pupils, are sited away from the walls; the gaps admit light to the ground floor below. The Picture Room occupies the rear of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, its suspended ceiling a curious mix of classical and Gothic forms. Here Soane displayed his best paintings, hung on an ingenious method of hinged panels, or ‘moveable planes’ which swing out, revealing different layers. Prized by Soane were his original ink-and-wash views of Paestum by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) but the chief pictures are those by Hogarth: the celebrated eight-canvas Rake’s Progress series (1732–33) and the magnificent four-canvas Election series (c. 1745). The former was purchased at Christie’s auction house by Mrs Soane (Soane being unwell) in 1802 from Alderman Beckford’s collection. The latter was purchased at Christie’s in 1823, at Mrs Garrick’s sale, for £1,732. In addition Soane possessed watercolours by Turner; an oil sketch for Sir James Thornhill’s Baroque ceiling for the Queen’s State Bedchamber at Hampton Court; and a fragment of a tapestry cartoon, from the studio of Raphael, for the ‘Life of Christ’ tapestries for the Scuola Nuova in the Vatican. In the inner recess of the south wall, formerly glimpsed from the Corridor, is the plaster nymph by Sir Richard Westmacott, a friend of Soane’s, who was invited to dinner to admire the placement of his sculpture.

In the basement is the Monk’s Parlour, or the ‘Parloir of Padre Giovanni’ as Soane was amused to called it, the first of a series of theatrical spaces for his medieval and Gothic treasures, inspired by, and satirising, the taste for gothic novels and medieval antiquarianism, an elaboration of the sombre reclusive hermit theme begun at Pitshanger. Ancient stained glass and coloured glazing was set into windows and doors, rearranged in the 1890s for its greater protection, with yellow light filtering down from the Picture Room recess. The walls are covered with casts and genuine Gothic fragments, many from the old Palace of Westminster. In this odd environment Soane would entertain close friends to tea. From the window is a view onto the Monk’s Yard, with its cloister with further fragments from the old Palace of Westminster, demolished in 1823, including pieces from the House of Lords, the celebrated Painted Chamber, and carved Gothic canopies from St Stephen’s chapel; the Monk’s Tomb; and the grave of his wife’s dog, Fanny. The Monk’s Cell, with a niche for holy water, displayed Soane’s medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Leaving the Monk’s Parlour, to the left are plaster models by the celebrated Neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, a personal friend of Soane’s. There are over 60 of his works in the museum, many given to or purchased by Soane from Maria Denman, Flaxman’s sister-in-law, after the sculptor’s death (many more were presented to University College) including the fine plaster relief for the monument to Mrs Helen Knight, at Wolverley, Worcestershire. The plaster figure of the reclining Penelope Boothby is the model for Thomas Bank’s monument to her at Ashbourne, Derbyshire. In the Anteroom is a large cast of Venus at her Bath, from the collection of the painter George Romney. Soane probably intended this entire area to mimic the atmosphere of a sepulchral vault. The Catacombs house Roman and other antiquities; in the New Court is one of the original capitals from Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House, removed when the building was refaced in 1829; and in the West Chamber a colossal bronze head of Jupiter (Italian 18th century) and cork models of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome, of Stonehenge and of three Etruscan tombs. Looking east is the staggering vista down the Crypt, the basement area below Soane’s Dome. Immediately ahead is the Sepulchral Chamber, light flooding down from the dome above, bouncing off the walls encrusted with marbles, sculpture and architectural fragments. The space is dominated by the colossal bulk of the sarcophagus of Sethi I, Soane’s most expensive and triumphant purchase, made in 1825. Excavated by the colourful strongman and hydraulic engineer Giovanni Belzoni, it had been offered to the British Museum by the British Consul-General in Egypt, Henry Salt, but had been turned down on grounds of cost. Huge and translucent, covered in hieroglyphics, it was the centrepiece of Soane’s flamboyant party held over three evenings soon after its arrival.

Returning to the main floor is the Colonnade, supported by ten Corinthian columns. Crowding into the area are antique fragments and sculptures by Soane’s friends and contemporaries. A female torso is from the frieze of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, although its identity was not realised in Soane’s day. The Dome continues the overwhelming assemblage of architecture and sculpture. Large and dominating is the Apollo Belvedere, a cast formerly in the collection of Lord Burlington at Chiswick House, of which Soane was exceedingly proud, not least because of its provenance. Lined up on the balustrade surrounding the opening to the Crypt below, with a view down onto the Egyptian sarcophagus, are antique vases and urns, and Sir Francis Chantrey’s bust of Soane. Beyond the Dome an arch opens into the New Picture Room, with a pair of fine console tables in the style of William Kent, from Walpole House, Chelsea, demolished by Soane in 1809 to make way for the new Infirmary he had designed for the Royal Hospital. The greatest treasure is Soane’s prized Canaletto, a view of Venice, one of his very finest, which Soane purchased from the sale of Fonthill Splendens in 1807. The Breakfast Parlour remains almost unaltered from Soane’s day. The ceiling is a beautiful flattened dome, almost floating in the air, to either side openings rising to skylights with coloured glass. In the four corners of the ceiling are convex mirrors, and nearly 100 more punctuate the surfaces of the room, some merely small glittering orbs. On the north wall is a large watercolour of Mrs Soane’s tomb, Flaxman’s figure of Victory having been positioned in front of it by Soane just ten days before he died in 1837. The dog portrait by James Ward is Mrs Soane’s pet, Fanny, who is buried in the Monk’s Yard.

Returning to the inner Hall, the stairs lead up to the Drawing Rooms, passing on the way the Skakespeare Recess and other niches with sculpture busts.

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Gravatar: MuseumMuseum
30.06.2015
09:57
Update from Sir John Soane's Museum

Sir John Soane’s Private Apartments and Model Room Open to the Public:
see the Architectural Digest article >>

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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