John Soane's Treasure House
Beaton, Belinda, Queen's Quarterly
For over a century Sir John Soane's museum sat as a little jewel in London. Visitors explored the home and collections of its eccentric architect, and its archives offered scholars an abundance of British architectural drawings. Over the last decade, growing public interest in architecture and iconic buildings has given it a new relevance. Now this museum, which owes its inception to the disinheritance of a son, is pioneering how children are taught about architecture.
TWO YEARS AGO a lesser-known London museum mounted a successful exhibit at Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture. A sister exhibit installed in Paris at the same time was also a hit. Many were surprised that the little museum created by Sir John Soane (1753-1837) had extended its reach to North America. While a favourite of historians and students of architecture, its meagre resources and lack of facilities made it an unlikely candidate for such international projects. Yet the increasing public demand for an understanding concerning alterations to the built environment has fostered the revival of one of London's most eccentric and inspiring museums.
Sir John Soane, one of the most famous architects during the Regency, achieved an international reputation when he designed the Bank of England, Europe's first purpose-built bank. When the czar of Russia visited London in 1814, he asked to meet Soane, who presented him with a copy of its drawings. Soane's public profile soared when he designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery free of charge. At the time, England was the only major European country that did not have a national gallery, and Soane wanted to foster a public appreciation of art. In spite of other prestigious commissions, today his best-known work is his London row house, which, through a set of unusual circumstances, evolved into a museum.
SOANE, the son of a bricklayer, won a Royal Academy scholarship in 1778 that enabled him to study in Italy for two years while he was training to be an architect. There he became fascinated with vaulted Roman buildings. These no doubt provided the inspiration for the series of domed spaces he subsequently designed throughout the Bank of England. His marriage to a well-connected heiress in 1790 and his increasing professional prominence made it possible for him to buy Number 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields in central London as a convenient location for his practice and a home for his family. Later he acquired the property next door and renovated it as well. Eventually his practice was located in Number 12, while Number 13 was the centre of his domestic and social life. The residence became a testament to Soane's fascination with architectural design and ornament. Plaster casts, books on architecture, and fragments from medieval buildings found their way onto his walls and into his cabinets.
Soane's increased affluence enabled him to be more flamboyant in his retrofitting of Number 13. He fronted it with a projecting loggia, a facade that stood in marked contrast to the more conventional terraced houses in the square, with their characteristic Georgian porticos. He experimented to create special effects with light, diffusing it through shafts, vaults, and even a floor composed of glass bottle tops. Mirrors were unobtrusively placed in niches and corners to amplify light. The use of low-ceilinged vestibules and passages made the entrance to major spaces more dramatic. Several of the more formal rooms had shallow square domes in the centre of their ceilings. Perhaps the most brilliant achievement was the small square breakfast room that was vaulted by a sail dome that rested on its points.
While the house may have had whimsical aspects, such as a parlour Soane filled with medieval fragments and dedicated to an imaginary monk, it also had a serious didactic purpose. Soane had apprentices, he lectured at the Royal Academy, and he expected his eldest son John to join his practice. …