Anne Gardom’s serentipital mid-London experience

The Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of London’s surprises. It is an odd and interesting place, and was the creation of an odd and interesting man. John Soane (1753–1837) came from an obscure background to become one of the most important British architects of his time. Many of his famous buildings have vanished, but the Tivoli Corner of the Bank of England remains, Pitshanger House in Ealing, and St Peter’s, Walworth. It is, however, in this, his own house and museum, that it is possible to appreciate his genius. As a young man he came to the notice of the famous architect John Dance, whose patronage, combined with an early and wealthy marriage, helped to launch his brilliant career.

He lived in this house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (or houses, as he eventually acquired three), which was bequeathed, with all its contents, to the nation on his death. It was also open to the public during his lifetime but not in ‘wet or dirty weather’. It bears the unmistakable stamp of his life and ideas. It lies on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, still an open green space, in three elegantly converted eighteenth-century houses. You go up the front steps, ring the bell, sign the visitors’ book, and you are in the house where he lived and worked, and which he filled with his collection of pictures, furniture and objets d’art.

The library and dining room are on the ground floor As well as housing some of his 10,000 books, these rooms were used for entertaining, and to display some of his most prized objects. Among them are two Apulian vases from the fourth century BC, especially admired for their excellent state of preservation. There is also an extraordinary set of Cantonese chairs, heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which are an interesting example of the way in which Chinese craftsmen adapted their skills to the Western markets. We know how these rooms were arranged because there are many drawings of them. In particular a charming watercolour by John Gandy shows the family around the table in the breakfast room, with a view of trees through the windows. In these rooms hang Thomas Lawrence’s fine portrait of Soane, and a rather dark painting entitled Love and Beauty by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The deep Pompeian red of the walls was said to match an ancient fragment of a fresco that he brought back from his Italian travels.

Leading from this rather grand reception area are two narrow little rooms – the Study and Dressingroom (still with its original pump and washbasin). These two very personal tiny spaces are crammed with Roman fragments and framed sets of casts from intaglio gems, all executed with the finest of detail that must have pleased his connoisseur’s eye. This is where he worked at his specially designed pull-out desk and could enjoy the contemplation of some of his most precious possessions.

From these rooms you enter the Corridor, and a tall narrow space with a deep yellow glazed skylight designed to shed a golden light. It is full of casts and marbles and was intended as an elegant and pleasing visual library and source of architectural inspiration. Here also is an open mezzanine studio where students and assistants worked.

The Picture Room at the end of the Corridor contains two sequences of paintings by Hogarth, probably the most famous items in his collection. They are The Election and The Rake’s Progress painted in his most vivid and lively style, a joy in themselves and a commentary on contemporary life. This is not all, however, in the Picture Room – the assistant opens screens, and yet another complete wall of pictures appears. They are Piranesi’s magnificent black and white sketches of ruined temples, later published as etchings by his son Francisco, and better known in this form. More screens open, and we see John Gandy’s drawings of Soane’s architectural schemes. Some were built, but many, like his plans for a Royal Palace in Green Park, were probably fireworks of ideas intended more to keep his name before the public at the annual Royal Academy Exhibition than as serious commissions. The screens open again to reveal statues and carvings on the opposite wall – all are exactly as designed by Soane and ingeniously triple the display space in the Picture Room.

After his death only one further room was added – in 1890 – to display his three Canalettos more effectively by giving them a better light and making them more easily available to all art students. One of them, View towards Maria della Salute, Venice, is a wonderful study of boats and watery shadows and reflections and is considered to be one of Canaletto’s finest paintings.

The basement is also a display area. The Monk’s Parlour is gothic and melancholy. Soane worked on the old Palace of Westminster and there are fragments of thirteenth-century masonry here. He used to entertain down here and after the death of his wife he used this part of the house as a retreat in his bereavement and sadness at his unsatisfactory relationship with his sons.

Adjacent to the Monk’s Parlour is the Crypt, intended to remind the visitors of a Roman burial chamber. Here there are many casts of Roman antiquities, which he used to demonstrate ideas to his clients and instruct his assistants. The focus of this display, which can also be viewed from the Corridor above, is the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti II (died 1279 BC), one of the most important Egyptian finds ever made. It has not survived well in the London atmosphere, the white calcite limestone has discoloured and the coloured designs eroded. It is still an astonishing piece however, and he celebrated its acquisition with great parties and lavish illumination with oil lamps.

Upstairs, we reach Mrs Soane’s first-floor drawingrooms, decorated, curtains and all, in the fashionable colour of the day Turner’s Patent Yellow. Here is a charming portrait of their two sons by William Owen and a rather sad-looking Mrs Soane, painted by Flaxman. These spacious and elegant rooms, with their glassed-in balconies, would have lent themselves to the parties and entertainments that took place there.

This house is the creation of a complex and brilliant man, and very much reflects his personality and interests. It is almost bewildering in the richness of its collection, and particularly in the original and confident use of space, domes, windows, mirrors and lighting to create an atmosphere of interest and variety.

There is work being done here at the moment but by the summer you will be able to enjoy the expanded facilities of one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic museums in London.

Sir John Soane’s Museum is free