Our Glorious Heritage: The Ruins of Sir John Soane
Hanks, Robert, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The architect Sir John Soane was fascinated by ruins - as many architects must be, ruins being both an inspiration and a warning ("This is how the stuff you build is going to end up"). In the grounds of his country house, Pitshanger Manor at Ealing, he built a mock ruin, with broken walls and buried columns, and announced to the press the discovery of the remains of a Roman temple. At the back of his house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields he built the "Monk's Yard", supposedly the cell of a medieval hermit called Padre Giovanni, but actually some fragments from the ruined Palace of Westminster, which Soane was rebuilding.
At that time, in the first decades of the 19th century, the literary craze for the Gothic was at its height, and mock ruins were not uncommon. Perhaps odder was Soane's habit of envisioning his own building commissions as ruins-in-waiting. His assistant, the artist Joseph Gandy, regularly painted for him apocalyptic views of his work - including the Bank of England, his masterpiece - in a London reduced to wasteland. This turned out to be prophetic: very little that Soane built has survived. Virtually all his Bank of England was demolished in the 1920s, though some of the interiors have been restored; several of the country-houses exist in fragments. Even the ruins at Pitshanger were knocked down, to make way for a coal- store. Dulwich Picture Gallery has stood up well, though substantially rebuilt after wartime bombing. Only the house at Lincoln's Inn Fields - now preserved as Sir John Soane's Museum - is more or less as he left it.
While it was half-built, in the summer of 1812, Soane wrote a manuscript called "Crude Hints Towards the History of my House", in which he imagined it as half-tumbled down. The ostensible author of the piece was an archaeologist of the future, trying to figure out the ruined building's original purpose - a temple of Jupiter? The house of a magician? The puzzlement is understandable: little logic is discernible in the house, with its unexpectedly long vistas, startling effects of light and shadow, its clutter of paintings and objets. Henry James summed up its charm with uncharacteristic concision in his novella A London Life: "The place gives one …
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Publication information: Article title: Our Glorious Heritage: The Ruins of Sir John Soane. Contributors: Hanks, Robert - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: April 27, 2003. Page number: 6,. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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