There's No Place like Soane

Article excerpt

Byline: PHILIPPA STOCKLEY

IF YOU want to make a New Year's design resolution, then visit "the Soane" - properly called Sir John Soane's Museum. Tucked away in Lincoln's Inn Fields, five minutes' walk from Holborn Tube, are two-and-a-bit interconnecting 18th century houses so full of astonishing things you will have to go back at least a second time to take it all in.

Sir John Soane was a brilliant, innovative architect. With boundless curiosity and a very successful practice, he was frequently ahead of his time.

Born the son of a bricklayer in 1753, with slim prospects, he fell into architecture by chance, tagged an "e" onto the end of his name, had a Architect Sir John Soane's ideas of space and light were centuries ahead of their time. With the Soane Museum celebrating his 250th anniversary, Philippa Stockley looks at his designs for London living, and launches our Adopt A Courtyard appeal "Sir" added to the front when he was knighted in 1831, and ended up with a healthy bank balance - a perfect example of the self-made man from whom there is much to learn.

When he wasn't building the Bank of England, or numerous country houses, or designing bridges, he was putting together his own masterpiece home in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

He built Number 12, then 13, and finally 14 (which was mainly rented out).

He then filled the linked houses, year by year, with a mindboggling collection of statuary, casts, artefacts and paintings.

As his home grew around him, crammed to overflowing with objects and interior-design innovations, Soane opened it to students so they could share and profit from his ideas - something too few collectors do today.

He worked and lived there, with his wife and two sons, creating a sort of cross between Corbusier's machine for living and a living museum.

It's a museum still, every bit as alive as it was in the early 19th century, as if the owner has just nipped out for a stroll and will be back shortly.

You need a catalogue to describe Soane's enormous collection - ranging from Hogarth's moral and funny series of paintings, The Rake's Progress, to the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, turned down by the British Museum (which is presumably still kicking itself) and picked up by Soane for pound sterling2,000.

Just as interesting is how Soane designed his houses, making astonishingly versatile use of space and natural light - a form of thinking that was not in line with the times, but from which we can learn plenty of useful tricks.

He was a man who didn't know the meaning of "can't" and wouldn't settle till he got it right. Endearingly, according to the Soane's curator, Margaret Richardson, "he tinkered constantly".

Light fantastic

In a London of dark houses, Soane's home is pierced by an unbelievable 22 skylights pouring sunlight into tiny spaces as well as big dramatic ones.

Some of the skylights are little more than a foot across, set with coloured glass, adding interest and light to the smallest room.

Richardson agrees that Soane was forwardthinking, explaining that "he thought laterally as well as vertically".

You might say cubically rather than square.

He cut sideways openings in walls, as well as punching through floors to make a soaring triple-height space - straight through from the cellars to a huge ceiling dome that sucks a lungful of light into the core of the building.

At a time when artificial light came from gas or candles, this use of natural light was practical and beautiful, the top-lighting showing off his statuary to best effect, while light permeates sideways into other rooms.

Vistas and contrasts

Today's builders tend to conformity, but Soane was an anarchist. Unexpected narrow passages make you look sideways into them, while skylights pull your eyes upward.

Some rooms are grand, such as the yellow drawing room, done out in 1815 in "Turner's Patent Yellow". …

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