Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Summerson



©Monica Pidgeon



Section Through Museum. 1827

©John Donat

This is Sir John Soane's Museum. That is its official name and that describes it exactly. It's one man's museum. Sir John Soane built the house to live in and as a museum. He collected very nearly everything you see here and furthermore arranged it in the way that you see it arranged. Nothing could be more completely one man's museum.


Numbers 12, 13 & 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields

©John Donat

In 1792 when he was just on forty he decided that he was important enough and rich enough to have a London house of his own. So he came here to Lincoln's Inn Fields and bought one of the old houses on the north side of the square, pulled it down and built it for himself. Now that was not this house. That's the house next door, Number 12. He built that first in 1792 and he was there for twenty years.


Ground Floor Plan Of Numbers 12, 13 & 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields (The Museum Is Outlined In Black)

©John Donat

It was only when he was sixty that he bought the old house on the site of this one, pulled it down and built the house that we're now in, and you may think it a little odd that a man of sixty should want a much bigger house than he had when he was forty when he had a family of young children. But the reason is quite obvious when you know the story. It was that during those twenty years that he'd been living in Number 12, he had been collecting. So when he was sixty his wife was still with him, the children grown up and gone away, but he had the Collection, and the Collection was growing. He had a country house at Ealing and a lot of it was there. He was to give that up in 1810, and when he came here, when he decided to build this house, Number 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, he wanted to concentrate the whole of his Collection here. In fact from the very first, he was creating a museum. This is not simply the house of a famous man which has been preserved because of his fame after his life time; it is a museum created as such in the first instance, a combined residence and museum and, of course, as you look around you will see this very clearly illustrated.


Portrait Of Soane Aged 75 By Sir Thomas Lawrence

©John Donat

Over there you see a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of Sir John Soane taken when he was seventy five. Well he started in quite a humble way. He was the son of a small country builder in Berkshire, but when he was fifteen he decided he wanted to be an architect and he came up to London and entered the service of George Dance, one of the top architects of the time, and then went on to another famous architect, Henry Holland; and he won the silver medal and the gold medal of the Royal Academy. And after that the Royal Academy sent him as their travelling student to Italy and he was there for two years. He came back with the reputation as a very brilliant young architect, and in a few years had a good country house practice here in England. Well then, very prudently, he married, in 1784, the niece of a successful building contractor and she had expectations from her uncle.


Soane Water-Colour Of The Bank Of England

©John Donat

He was lucky in having William Pitt for his patron at that time and he secured the appointment of architect to the Bank of England and, although neither he nor anybody else knew it, the Bank was just at that time on the verge of a great period of re-development because of the National Debt. And between thirty and forty years the Bank kept adding to its property, building and re-building - halls, offices, residences, until it became the building that we know today on that enormous site area between Lothbury and Threadneedle Street. Well Soane was responsible for that and it was his greatest work.


The Dining-Room & Library Looking Towards Lincoln's Inn Field End

©John Donat

The room we're in now is a dining room, as you can see by the dining room furniture, and through the opening there you look into the library, and this front part of the building is the domestic part, the residential part, the living quarters. The furniture is pretty mixed, some of it is of Soane's own time, but really the most interesting things, I think, about these rooms are the rooms themselves, because Soane was a very original architect, in fact his contemporaries didn't hesitate to call him eccentric. His designs were very personal, and here you see Soane's own particular way of designing at its most idiosyncratic here in his own house. One thing you notice at once, and that is that there are very few of the conventional classical details here. No pilasters, capitals, entablatures, cornices. Everything is done with little off-sets, grooves, bead mouldings, and so on. Very, very simple, but although it is very simple it still builds up into quite a complicated piece.


Dining-Room/Library. Detail

©John Donat

Now the whole thing is immensely enhanced by the use of mirrors. That is something which Soane introduced. Soane was very fond of trying to expand the feeling of space in any given room and, of course, mirrors do help to do that. Look for instance at the way the mirror's introduced over there in the library. Look, you have first of all these hanging arches and there are two planes to those hanging arches, two pendants. Behind the hanging arches is the plane of the bookcases.


Dining-Room/Library. Detail

©John Donat

And then above the bookcases and behind the bookcases is a broad strip of mirror; and until you think quite carefully exactly where the wall is there, you have the impression that there's a room the other side of the bookcases with a ceiling like the one in this room and that it goes on and on.


Dining-Room. Looking Towards Study & Monument Court

©John Donat

This curious feeling of going on and on is something you very often get in Soane's buildings. He liked to see through and through; vistas going through room after room. Though I think not so much vistas as glimpses. Vistas sounds rather too grand for Soane. It's the picturesque pictorial idea of glimpsing one space through another. You have that very strongly in this room we're in.


Study. Looking Towards Monument Court

©John Donat

Well now we're in the study and the dressing room. Two quite small rooms which lead off the dining room. Rooms like this you often find in houses of this size in Soane's time, little rooms for the master of the house: letter-writing room and a changing room. But as you see, here the museum has taken charge of all the space. The walls are covered with exhibits. In the first room there are these fragments, carved fragments which were collected in Rome at various sites in Rome, by Henry Holland and which came to Soane after Holland's death and he arranged them as you see. Well this way of collecting, of bringing in all sorts of bits and pieces from all sorts of places, is illustrated again if you look out of the windows. If you look to the left here into what we call Monument Court, you'll see a carved stone pilaster and under it is a Corinthian capital. Well, the carved stone pilaster comes from Furnivals Inn, a seventeenth century building on the site of the present Prudential in Holborn, and when that was pulled down Soane thought it worth taking a few of the carvings and building them into his museum. And the same all through the museum: it's really one long improvisation over thirty years or more. There's nothing systematic about it. Things he bought at sales, things people gave him, things that came to hand quite by chance like these fragments, all put together in a sort of continuous improvisation which gives the museum its extraordinary personal character.


Dressing-Room. Ceiling Lantern

©John Donat

And then we go into the next room, the dressing room, and the exhibits here are very mixed, all sorts of things, some of them of very much more souvenir value than of intrinsic artistic interest. But look up at the ceiling. It's rather a strange ceiling and in the middle of it there's a square opening, and the square opening has little mirrors round it. The square opening is covered by a very slightly domed ceiling, and in the middle of that ceiling there's a round opening, and above that a funnel-shaped lantern with panes of glass about an inch square, and a tiny little painting on each pane of glass, and above the little carved rose you can hardly see at all. And you may wonder why anybody would take such enormous pains to make something which would hardly be noticed. Well, the answer is quite interesting because it gives a clue to the way Soane put this museum together. The upper part of that lantern is a scale model of the ceiling and lantern light which he designed for the Freemasons Hall in Great Queen's Street, and when the model had served its purpose in connection with that building, Soane brought it here and built it in as you see, and, of course, if you know what it is, it's very delightful and very interesting.


Picture Room With Hogarths & Piranesis

©John Donat

Now, through these columns, and turn right into the Picture Room. Well, this is the Picture Room. It's really a picture gallery but it's a folding picture gallery. Three of these walls open up, they are in effect cupboards and there are pictures behind them. Soane was not one of the great picture collectors. He was wholly dedicated to architecture. But he did enjoy pictures, he liked history painting, he liked portraits; above all he liked the anecdote, and that is why on two occasions, when very famous Hogarth paintings came into the market, he opened his purse much wider than usual and bought them. And in buying those pictures, Soane certainly endowed his collection with the things which today bring more people here than anything else we've got. People come from all over the world to the Soane Museum to see the Hogarths. First of all the famous Rake's Progress (the eight paintings behind me),and then about twenty years later the Election series which must, I think, have been commissioned by the actor David Garrick in whose possession the Election series were for a long time. And then over the Hogarths, drawings by Piranesi and by Clerisseau, the two great names in architectural draughtsmanship of the 18th century. Soane was immensely proud of having both these two, Piranesi and Clerisseau, represented in his collection.


Picture Room With First Panels Open

©John Donat

Well, now let's open the room up, let's open the shutters on the south. You see, the shutters swing back and in front of us are six large drawings of Soane's buildings, and on each side three more. That makes twelve drawings in all of Soane's own architectural works. Now these drawings were made for him by his favourite perspective artist, Joseph Gandy, and they were all exhibited at one time or another at Somerset House, in the Royal Academy exhibitions at Somerset House. Just to point out some of the more interesting ones, here's a group of interiors of the Bank of England, all, I'm afraid, now gone. They were pulled down from 1925 onwards. Here's a most remarkable group, a tour-de-force in draughtsmanship, which groups together all Soane's works up to the year 1815 in one room, seen as models and drawings. Then above that are some sketches of the museum done in 1821 which show how very little it's changed.


Picture Room With Second Panels Open. Overlooking Monk's Court

©John Donat

And now let's open the next pair of shutters, and we look into a recess. Straight in front of us is a model of the Bank of England, the Threadneedle Street front, the statue of The Nymph standing over it, more architectural drawings; and then we look down, because we look over a parapet here and down into another room, and then again down and through into what is called the Monk's Yard.


Monk's Court Seen From Picture Room

©John Donat

Here is Soane really enjoying architectural spaces. They're ruined arches. They are, in fact, made up of stones which Soane brought from Westminster. He was in charge of repairs there and brought these old stones from Westminster and built them up into these ruined arches. It's all part of the story of the monk whose tomb lies under the window, and if you look at the headstone you will see the inscription, "Alas, Poor Fanny". Well Fanny, I must explain, is a small dog, a great pet of Mrs. Soane's who was buried in the Monk's Tomb. Well, you see this is not at a very serious level, is it?


Monk's Parlour Below Picture Room

©John Donat

The room we're looking into, is called the Monk's Parlour. We can see it from here and I'll tell you one or two things about it. It's crowded with objects. Very few of them are very important, very few of them are really medieval, but they are intended to give the idea of a crowded haunt of medievalism. A monkish resort. Now, to be fair to Soane, he did tell us not to take all this too seriously, and I think his idea is to have a little bit of fun at the expense of the archaeologists of his time: this collection of Gothic detail which he thought was rather over-done and which he was laughing at, perhaps, in what we're looking at now. There is that, but there is also, of course, Soane enjoying himself with a very complex and artificial arrangement of spaces.


Dome. Looking Towards Colonnade

©John Donat

We've come through the Colonnade into the space we call the Dome. This Dome is just as much dedicated to classical details of ornaments as the Monk's Parlour is to the Gothic, only it's all on a much more serious level. Here are many of the rather famous fragments and reliefs to be found in the Vatican Museum, represented here in plaster casts which, of course, were very much valued in Soane's time. It's wall plaster. Across the space is a bust of Soane by his friend Chantry, and Chantry said of it "I don't know whether this bust is more like John Soane or Julius Caesar. What I do know is that I've never carved a better".


Seti's Sarcophagus Seen From Dome

©John Donat

We're looking down now into the crypt and, just as a few moments ago we were looking down into the Monk's Parlour, and down and through into the Monk's Yard, so now we're looking down into what we call the Sepulchral Chamber and through towards the Monk's Parlour in the basement. These busts and vases round the balustrade are the real thing. They're Roman; down below there are Roman cinerary urns and fragments of all sorts; and in the middle of it all the sarcophagus of Seti the First. Now that is not Roman, it's Egyptian; and it is one of the most famous objects in the museum, it's one of the great Egyptian sarcophagi, and Soane was immensely proud of having acquired it. It was discovered in 1817 and was offered to the British Museum. The British Museum having spent all its money on the Elgin marbles, declined to buy it. Soane stepped in and bought it, and I have an idea that one reason why he was so very anxious to get it was that it fills that space down there so remarkably well. It really is the right monumental setting for this wonderful object, this great sarcophagus of alabaster, carved inside and out with hieroglyphics. Well that really was the crown of Soane's collecting career, the acquisition of the sarcophagus.


Breakfast Room

©John Donat

And now I think we'll go forward into the last of the rooms here, the Breakfast Room. The Breakfast Room is the most characteristic of all the rooms in the museum, the one which shows Soane's personal style at its most interesting I think. You see it's domed and if you imagine a room about three times the size of this, you get a pretty good idea of the old domed halls of the Bank of England. Here it's in miniature. But this is the quintessence of the Soane style. Very plain; as I said before in the dining room, there are none of those conventional tricks of architecture which really belong to Soane's period.


Breakfast Room. Ceiling Lantern

©John Donat

There are these little beaded mouldings, some rather primitive ornament and a beautiful little lantern in the middle of the dome, and again mirrors, and the reflections in the mirrors are fascinating.


Breakfast Room. Detail

©John Donat

Look at the mirror over the chimney piece, and that reflects the courtyard outside. Then you look through in the reflection, the Dressing Room and, in the far distance you see the ruins in the Monk's Yard. Well, the objects here are of rather minor importance though there are some interesting things. The busts on the chimney piece are by Flaxman and we have a great deal of his work here because he was a friend of Soane's.


Breakfast Room. Looking Towards Dining-Room

©John Donat

And then there are some interesting coloured engravings of mural decorations of Rome which were discovered and recorded in the eighteenth century, and I think they're worth looking at because they show one of the sources from which Soane developed his own style. I think you'll recognize it if you look at that drawing of a Roman decoration and look through the door - we can see right through from here into the Dining Room - and you'll see the shapes of the arches and even the colour derives, quite obviously, from that kind of Roman decoration, but all very much changed, refined, modified by Soane's own particular taste. This ends the tour on the ground floor. There's a great deal more to the museum. Well, we've already peeped into the Crypt and the Monk's Parlour. That's all on the basement level and then upstairs, of course, there's the Drawing Room floor. It becomes rather less of a museum upstairs. It's more of a residence, a gentleman's residence; and then above that are the bedroom floors. Those are now the museum offices. But I think the way we've been, the route we've followed, on the ground floor, has given you a pretty fair glimpse of the museum, its shape and the rather curious inventions of its famous founder.



© Monica Pidgeon