Sir John Soane's Museum

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Sir John Soane's Museum


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


* A museum is a respectable articulation of collecting mania. In one direction lie lunatic accumulations of old newspapers, used light bulbs and obsolete mousetraps. In the other looms all the majesty of the British Museum. The collection on view in Sir John Soane's Museum, displayed as he organised it in the rooms he himself designed, lies somewhere between the cabinet of curiosities and the museum proper.

Soane was an odd fish, said to have looked like a picture on the back of a spoon. Born in 1753, the son of a country bricklayer, he made his way by his own talents to the top of the tree as an architect. Marrying Elizabeth Smith, a rich builder's heiress, he rebuilt three houses on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields as his family home and office, and to display his treasures. Always conscious of his humble origins (his eider brother remained a bricklayer all his life), Soane was vulnerable and demanding, irritable and easily upset. Architect to the Bank of England for many years, he was knighted in 1831 and died in 1837 aged 83.

His accumulations of half a century are housed in a warren of rooms and passages where Soane indulged his delight in spatial surprises and effects of light. His artful use of mirrors, skylights and interior windows and openings creates an illusion of far more space than is actually there. The most famous items are the two great Hogarth Rake's Progress and Election series. Soane commissioned canvases from leading painters of the day and paid handsomely for them, but the pictures are only the grace notes to the vast array of objects of different types, sizes, shapes and periods all jammed together, crowded on the walls, perched on shelves and brackets or fighting for a toehold on the floor.

Soane collected an enormous quantity of classical and Renaissance statues, busts and casts, from a replica of the Apollo Belvedere to stray bits of feet and toes. He bought up Greek and Roman marbles, bronzes and terracotas, altars and urns, antique gems, stray medieval objects and fragments from demolished London buildings. He acquired Indian ivory furniture and Napoleonic medals, engraved seals, Peruvian pottery and Chinese ceramics. He had cork models of Greek temples and Etruscan .tombs, books and manuscripts, architectural drawings by Wren, Piranesi, Robert Adam and others (running to thousands of items). He also had numerous models and casts of statues by Flaxman, who was a valued Mend.

When the British Museum could not afford it, Soane bought the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I and installed it in a place of honour in his sepulchral catacombs. If not haunted, the museum ought to be, and at least one watchman has left in terror after a single night alone in the place.

Soane also delighted in a Roman table leg, a scold's bridie, fossil ammonites, the tooth of a Burmese elephant, two mummified cats and a mummified rat, and a large fungus from Sumatra. He had a sense of humour and liked surprises. You look out of a window to see a moping monkish cloister, mournfully appointed, with a tomb startlingly inscribed, 'Alas Poor Fanny'. …

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