House of Collection: Will Palin Recalls the Labour of Love Behind the Architect and Collector Sir John Soane's Efforts to Create His Home and Museum on London's Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Tells of the Major Restoration Project That Marks the 250th Anniversary Year of Soane's Birth

By Palin, Will | History Today, September 2003 | Go to article overview

House of Collection: Will Palin Recalls the Labour of Love Behind the Architect and Collector Sir John Soane's Efforts to Create His Home and Museum on London's Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Tells of the Major Restoration Project That Marks the 250th Anniversary Year of Soane's Birth


Palin, Will, History Today


AT BREAKFAST ONE MORNING IN November 1823, George Tyndale of No.12 Lincoln's Inn Fields was disturbed by the sound of demolition men at work. For the long-suffering solicitor this was nothing new. It was simply the start of another building project directed by his energetic and eccentric neighbour, the esteemed architect John Soane (1753-1837).

Soane had begun the remodelling of this section of the north terrace of Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1792 when he pulled down and rebuilt No.12, incorporating a graceful geometrical stone staircase and a series of elegant interiors. He had recently been appointed as architect to the Bank of England, and was also enjoying the benefit of a substantial inheritance via his wife, Eliza. At first he was content that this house, and later a country villa he constructed at Pitzhanger in Ealing should comprise his personal empire, the stewardship of which he hoped eventually to hand over to his sons John and George. He had already started collecting works of art to improve the taste of his sons and inspire them to follow in his footsteps. However this vision of establishing an architectural dynast), (Soane himself was the youngest son of a Reading bricklayer) was never to be realised. In 1810 a bitterly disappointed Soane sold Pitzhanger Manor and removed the contents to Lincoln's Inn Fields. His sons had failed to respond to his encouragements--George had proved stubborn and rebellious, John suffered from tuberculosis and lacked the energy to pursue a career in architecture.

Soane now turned his attentions to his students at the Royal Academy where he had been elected Professor of Architecture in 1806. In 1808 he purchased the freehold of No.13 and built a 'Plaister Room' at the rear (joined to No.12) where his collection of largely classical casts and fragments could be displayed for the benefit of his students.

Between 1812 and 1813 Soane then rebuilt No.13 composing within its walls a landscape of Piranesian complexity. In the main rooms of the house, which where filled with oil paintings, engravings, Greek vases, architectural models and a substantial library, Soane employed a variety of what he called 'fanciful effects'. These included exquisite canopied ceilings and countless mirrors, some flat and expansive, others convex to produce 'bird's-eye views' of the spaces. In his 'Museum' at the rear, grills allowed light to penetrate into the depths of the building and the fragments and casts were illuminated by hidden skylights fitted out with coloured glass. A central courtyard, the Monument Court, was treated as all external room fitted out with more sculptural items and later adorned with a pylon of architectural fragments almost 30ft high. (This spectacular folly--the Pasticcio--was dismantled in 1896 but is to be re-erected as part of the Museum's latest restoration project.)

After completing No.13 Soane set about treating the building as an architectural laboratory, continually remodelling the interiors. The death of his wife in 1815 added to his sense of isolation and his desire to manipulate and enhance his environment. In 1823, with a view to constructing a new picture gallery (having acquired the four large canvasses in Hogarth's 'Election' series) Soane decided to purchase No. 14, on the east side of his house. It seems Mr Tyndale got wind of the impending purchase for he made an offer himself to take up the lease (which was not eventually executed). Despite the disruption, living next to John Soane evidently held its attractions. …

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House of Collection: Will Palin Recalls the Labour of Love Behind the Architect and Collector Sir John Soane's Efforts to Create His Home and Museum on London's Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Tells of the Major Restoration Project That Marks the 250th Anniversary Year of Soane's Birth
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