Dazzled by the Brilliance of the Soane Age; REVIEW

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Dazzled by the Brilliance of the Soane Age; REVIEW


Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

Sir John Soane Royal Academy (until December 3) **** (Excellent) Sir John Soane is the most poetic of architects. His buildings, mostly erected in the first decades of the 19th Century, can sometimes seem to the visitor to be composed more of light and air than of bricks and stone. He delights in the visionary effects of falling light, and his interiors are always dazzling; they bemuse and deceive the eye as new vistas, strange discoveries of spaces, bewilder and enchant. He is the most original and lovable of English architects; Sir Christopher Wren may be, by common consent, the greatest of the tribe, but I guess that Soane is the one most beloved by professional practitioners.

A lot of his greatest buildings are now lost, alas, falling victim to changing fashions or ordinary disasters. The galleries he built at the old House of Lords were destroyed in the great fire in the 1830s, and replaced by the familiar building of Charles Barry.

Most tragic and awful of all was the demolition of his great masterpiece, the Bank of England. He spent most of his life, from 1788 onwards, constructing this magnificent walled city, both massive and airy. On classical models, it nevertheless struck an entirely new note, a wonderful bright-lit simplicity.

It survived long enough to be photographed, and seems to us like a statement not so much of power as of strength.

The only things which survive now are the huge blank walls; the rest was demolished in the 1920s, just as Soane was coming back into fashion, and it still seems like one of the most awful acts of vandalism imaginable, worse than knocking down St Paul's Cathedral.

What Soane could do is revealed in his quite wonderful house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, now the Sir John Soane Museum. It's somewhere I always take visitors to London, and have never known anyone who didn't fall in love with it on the spot. …

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