I like to pride myself on being a Londoner who really knows London…the nooks and crannies, the secret spots, the hidden passageways. But when, 15 years ago, two of my closest Dutch friends came to visit me, and announced they wanted to visit the Sir John Soane's museum, it was to my great embarrassment that I had to admit I’d never heard of it.
Shamed by my ignorance, I accompanied them the following day and, as we English like to say, was simply bowled over by what I discovered. Today, I’m back in Holborn, central London, and wandering in this astonishing house for the seventh time. The grandeur and beauty of its neo-classical build is truly hard to describe but, nevertheless, let me try to give you a taste.
First things first - the man himself. Sir John Soane was born in 1753, in Oxfordshire. He came from humble origins (his father was a bricklayer) but rose quickly to the top of his profession - architecture. Subsequently becoming a Professor at the Royal Academy, he designed the Bank of England and was knighted by the Queen for his services. His former home (and office) at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been meticulously restored and is a testimony to his extraordinary passion for books, paintings, sculptures and architectural drawings. (Soane, it should be noted, was an obsessive collector).
Let me first say that the museum is a veritable labyrinth spread over three adjacent houses and left almost untouched since his death in 1837 - hence it's almost impossible not to get lost (which perhaps is half the fun of it). A good place to begin, however, is the "stop and stare" Library Dining Room. The walls are a deep, rich red - ‘Pompeii Red’ - inspired by Soane's Grand Tour of Italy between 1778-1780. All around are artefacts, statues, and decorated ceilings (think Apollo and Pandora’s Box) as well as over 7,000 volumes of books. It is not an exaggeration to say that it can take your breath away.
My favourite piece in the Library, without a doubt, has to be the Astronomical Clock. Designed by Raingo, in Paris, it has been French polished to a marble finish and is a highly-complex mechanism. Showing an intricate model of the solar system, it can tell the time, anywhere in the world, down to the day of the week, as well as showing the rotation of the earth on its axis, the earth’s movement around the sun, the phases of the moon. etc.
Downstairs is nothing short of a treasure trove - including the sarcophagus of the Mummy of Seti (the British Museum was offered the chance to buy this Egyptian King’s tomb, but turned it down), a depiction of the Three Graces and a plaster model of the Laocoon (in Virgil, Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon who, along with his two sons, was eaten alive by snakes whilst trying to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse!). Everywhere you walk is stained glass, cornices and tiny passageways (not to mention a courtyard packed full of Roman and Greek artefacts).
The picture room is utterly astounding - Canaletto's fabulous ‘Riva deli Schiavoni’), a Turner in its original frame and Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ are amongst the endless canvases that grace the walls. Something else also pointed out to me by one of the staff (of which I’d always been vaguely conscious) is the way the skylights were designed - letting light flood through but diffusely, thereby hitting objects directly. Indeed, the glass in the museum is is yellow tinted with the aim of giving a 'Mediterranean' feel to the artefacts (Soane travelled regularly to Italy, with his students, observing them as they produced architectural sketchings). It’s fair to say that this is an extremely intelligent use of lighting.
Finally, do not miss the Breakfast Room - the iconic dome there was apparently Soane’s ‘trial run’ before he designed a similar one for the Bank of England! In this room, as in any other, you see clean lines and simple styles. Not that all was harmonious at this family’s meal times - indeed, the eccentric collector ended up disowning both of his sons (possibly because they refused to become architects, but this may be nothing more than a dark rumour…)
In conclusion, I tell you “Let yourself be transported back to the Regency.” The staff at the museum are extremely friendly, wonderfully helpful (one lent me her pencil, so that I could take notes) and exceptionally well informed, They also share a great love of the house - talking with a few of them at length, I couldn't help but be impressed by their enthusiasm, indeed, passion for the beauty that surrounds them and their deep desire to educate future generations.
Entrance is free (you can donate), photography is strictly forbidden (all images in this blog are courtesy of the Sir John Soane website) and I'd particularly recommend a visit in the winter as, one night each month, the entire house is lit by hundreds of candles. A more beautiful sight would be hard to behold
The Sir John Soanes Museum, 13 Lincoln’s inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP
Tel: 44 20 7405 2107