The Soane Museum
Architects today are as likely to design streamlined green environments, as they are traditional buildings; the classical forms of Greece and Rome are the basics for architectural students. It was gospel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Sir John Soane practiced in London.
Soane (1753-1837) was the architect of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Chelsea Hospital and the official house architect to the Bank of England. His lucrative practice enabled him to cram his house full of ancient friezes, capitals, statuary, and funerary objects, architectural drawings and paintings. That may sound like either the attic from hell or a museum. Soane viewed it as the latter. In his lifetime, budding architects and other visitors were welcome to tramp around the house; except in bad weather when they would have muddied the carpets. By act of Parliament on his death, it became a museum aptly named Sir John Soane’s Museum.
The ground floor begins gently enough with the dining room and library, which are full of objects, but not entirely stuffed with them. Soane’s canny lattice of light and mirrors maximize available illumination. The additions to the house were built to display the collection, while all manner of windows, skylights and other openings that enable light to get down even into the basement, assisted by more mirrors of varying styles and type.
In a tiny study there is a plan of the house’s system of drainpipes, a useful reminder that architecture is not just about the design of monuments for the ages. From the study, you can look out the window at the recently restored Pasticcio (image), a column that illustrates architectural history: made up of Roman and Norman fragments and topped with a cast iron pineapple.
Hundreds of sculptural fragments will distract at each step. A set of original Hogarth’s “the Rake’s Progress” series can be viewed in the picture gallery, and tucked behind a panel, a painting of Soane’s Bank of England building as it might have looked as a 2,000 year old ruin had it survived. A majority of the building was demolished in a 20th century redesign, an act one architectural historian called “the greatest architectural crime in the City of London.”
Down in the crypt, as it is called, is the Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I (around 1300 BC), carved out of one massive block of limestone. It is spectacular in itself, but, as with much in the Soane, viewing it is enhanced by a story: Soane bought it in 1824 after the British Museum would not pay the asking price of 2,000 pounds. Once he installed it, a feat that involved partial demolition and restoration of the building, he celebrated with a three-day party, inviting nearly a thousand guests.
Unbelievably a lost possession of the estate was recovered in 2009; the unique item was offered for sale by Christie’s, a gold mourning ring containing a plaited lock of Napoleon’s hair, one of Sir John Soane’s most prized possessions. A letter of presentation survives in the Soane Museum archive from Miss Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Balcombe the daughter of an official on St. Helena where Napoleon was imprisoned. As a child, she became a favorite of the emperor, later writing a memoir of their friendship. “Knowing how much Mr. Soane esteems the reliques of great men Miss E. Balcombe presents him with a lock of Bonaparte’s hair received by her from the hands of that great Personage.” The inscription inside reads: “This lock of hair of Napoleon Buonaparte was presented to John Soane by Miss Elizabeth Balcombe.” It also includes the words Prier Pour Moi (pray for me). The ring is hallmarked London 1822, the year after Napoleon’s death on St. Helena.
Soane died a widower in 1837, estranged from his surviving son whom he felt betrayed him, contributing to his own mother’s death. He and his wife are buried in a vault of his own design in the churchyard of Saint Pancras Old Church. The design of the vault was a direct influence on Giles Gilbert Scott’s design of the red telephone booth.