SMOKE and mirrors: how else to describe Sir John Soane's Museum, lit by the wavering blur of candles. This astonishing house, built by the architect of the Bank of England, is already famous for its candlelit opening on the first Tuesday of every month when those not turned away (hundreds queue for the unbookable event) explore the house unescorted, boggling at all the architecture and sculpture casts collected by Soane.
But on Friday May 13, as part of Museums at Night weekend, bookable, curator-led candlelit tours will offer a rare glimpse of the house that an Act of Parliament has kept just as it was when its owner was alive and in occupation.
If our homes represent our minds, then Soane was a dazzlingly brilliant, architectural nutcase on the scale of the Pantheon. Born in 1753, the talent of this bricklayer's son was quickly recognised while he was apprenticed to architect Charles Dance. At 31, he married an heiress, and later inherited a fortune that removed any need to work. But hyperactive Soane built a row of three houses and proceeded not only to run a hugely successful architectural office from the central one, but also to buy an immense collection of casts and paintings, with which, to the presumed astonishment or despair of Mrs Soane, he crammed a large part of it, covering every surface.
On the ground floor, the library-dining room's long-leaf table and portrait of Soane over the mantelpiece at least nod at normal life, although the Pompeian red walls, frescoed ceiling and black bookcases with mirrors behind them to enlarge one's sense of space, were not conventional taste; and the model Soane designed for his own tomb, casually displayed, so impressed Giles Gilbert Scott a century later that he based London phone boxes on it.
There are mirrors everywhere, especially in the much smaller breakfast room, as my guide, curatorial assistant John Bridges, points out: gleaming convex bosses on the domed ceiling, running down slender pillars. Soane used them throughout the frequently remodelled house to open and close perspectives, to delight, to reflect, to bewilder one's sense of space -- if it wasn't already bamboozled enough. Wherever possible he inserted skylights that drop light down, for the mirrors to reflect playfully about.
Soane liked to surprise. Glance out of the breakfast room window at a tiny internal courtyard and, instead of a garden, see a column made from bits and pieces of Roman architecture (a pasticcio), looming from the gloom, lit by the fluting flame of a gas lamp. …