Sir John Soane’s House, London
By: Isabella Woods
For all those who aspire to a maximalist utopia, there can be no greater spiritual home than that of Sir John Soane, in the Lincoln’s Inn Field area of London. If one were ever to tire of Paris for a day, then within two and a half hours by Eurostar, the joys of Georgian London await.
Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the son of a bricklayer, became one of the greatest architects in England. He designed the Bank of England building, parts of the Houses of Parliament and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. He also designed his own house over a number of years. It was an imaginative and daring design, with light bathing the interiors from above, and dramatic spaces opening up all around. His understanding of the use of space and light was revolutionary, and perfect for displaying his extraordinary collection of antique artifacts and art. And what art he collected - paintings by Hogarth, Canaletto, Turner and Reynolds; antique sculpture; plaster casts; architectural models showing different building techniques and a huge Egyptian sarcophagus. The artifacts fill the house in every available space, reflected in hundreds of mirrors that dot the walls.
A Gift To Art Lovers
So passionate a teacher was he that, upon his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, John Soane began to organize his vast collection of art works, books, casts and models so that his students could come and see them and sketch them. He created his own museum from his possessions, and people have been visiting it ever since. He wished it to be bequeathed to 'students and amateurs of art and architecture', and his wish was granted. In 1833 he negotiated an Act of Parliament safeguard the future of the house. It has been preserved exactly as it was the day Sir John died in 1837.
|Drawing Room (photo courtesy of John Soane's Museum)|
Described as “...one of the most complex, intricate, and ingenious series of interiors ever conceived” by The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, a wander round the various rooms certainly confirms this. Interconnected rooms joined by corridors and doorways on several levels take you on a serpentine route through the house, where no square inch is the same as its neighbor. One of the delights of the building is the range of levels, which lead you from the brightly lit top of the house, down through to the dark and gothic-like basement rooms, with many detours on the way. This contrast between light and dark make the house a complex experience, and the architecture challenges your expectations as well as the art works. The design ideas have influenced architects and designers from all over the world, especially the use of domed light-well ceilings.
(photo courtesy of Sir John Soane's museum)
Crammed with sculpture, drawings and priceless paintings, Soane shows his superb taste off well, by careful placing of items in a totally unstuffy, un-gallerylike manner. He places things next to each other that just look good that way, rather than insisting they come from the same period, or are of a similar value. He has an eye for symmetry and clearly possesses the knack of artistic ensemble that some seem born with. The furniture is simple and exquisite too, and of the highest quality. There’s not a microfiber sofa in sight here. It is all totally original and authentic, just as Soane would have bought it in the 19th Century. He might have just stepped out of the room. In the picture room, where many of the most important paintings are displayed, there is evidence that Soane finally began to run out of wall space, but he overcomes this with ingenious invention. The paintings are mounted on wall panels, which can be folded back to reveal more paintings behind them. Simple, clever and highly inventive.
|visitors to the Sarcophagus Room 1864 (photo from wikipedia)|
One of the star attractions is the Sarcophagus of King Seti I, a Pharaoh of the XIXth Dynasty in Egypt. It was discovered in 1825. Now housed in the Sepulchral Chamber at the back of the Soane house, the alabaster tomb has always attracted attention. Regarded as one of the most important finds ever made in Egypt, Soane managed to beat off opposition from the British Museum to purchase the treasure for a mere £2,000. He was so delighted with it he held three days of parties to celebrate, inviting over a thousand people to view it, lighting the room and the sarcophagus with oil lamps. What parties they must have been.
For all the richness of his life in art and architecture, Soane was an unhappy man. He was very sad that neither of his two sons shared his passions. The elder son, George, died; the other was a drunken idler, who wasted money and, when he later became a writer, mocked his father’s collection in newspaper articles, and was promptly disinherited. After his wife died in 1815 John Soane lived a lonely and isolated life in his beautiful house, which he called his ‘Mansion of Woe’. But he never stopped collecting. No true lover of art and architecture should miss the chance of a visit on a trip to London. But be patient, and visit on a night when there is a candle-lit tour, and marvel at the vision of the greatest collector in the world.
|Dining Room (Photo courtesy of John Soane's Museum)|
NB The Museum holds a special candlelit opening on the first Tuesday evening of each month, 6-9pm only and it cannot be booked. Long lines form well before 6pm so we suggest coming as early as possible to avoid disappointment.