John Soane was born to an artisan bricklayer in 1753 and by the end of his life, this youngest son had risen from these apparently humble beginnings to become the John Paul Getty of his time: one of the finest, wealthiest, and most famous collectors that Britain has ever known.
Just how did this meteoric rise occur? Well, with good fortune on his side and an urge to make the most of opportunities presented to him. As a young lad he was apprenticed to the architect George Dancer, which set him on track in his chosen career. He attended the Royal Academy as a student of architecture and was awarded a couple of medals there in recognition of his precocious brilliance. After that he was introduced to King George III who granted him a three year scholarship enabling him to 'do' the Grand Tour1 which ensured he received a good grounding in classical architecture and introduced him to all the right kinds of people. He also made productive connections by becoming a Freemason2, which like the Grand Tour, put him in contact with people who were in a position to grant commissions to him.
He received his most important commission, to design the Bank of England, at the age of 26. This impressive construction was the only public building undertaken during the Napoleonic Wars of 1800 - 1815, a telling sign that he had become the golden boy of the day. Shortly afterwards, his wife's uncle died leaving the pair of them a considerable fortune.
Why Collect So Much Stuff?
What with the Bank of England commission and the large inheritance, Soane now had enough money to pursue his passion for acquisition. He and his wife became frequent visitors of Christies' auction house, and in fact, nearly all of the contents of the house, with the exception of the furniture - much of the furniture was designed by Soane himself - was bought at auction.
As you wander among the museum's rooms you begin to wonder if Sir John wasn't also a bit of a show-off, displaying the spoils of the successful self-made man...
From the time of the Renaissance3, through the Age of Enlightenment4, and the Age of Reason, it was fashionable among those who considered themselves educated to look back to the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. This fascination manifested itself in men of intellect and money surrounding themselves with souvenirs collected from ancient sites. However, when Sir John went on the Grand Tour he went as a scholar and a companion to young men richer than himself. Unable to afford to bring back such spoils, he sketched ruins and accumulated the knowledge which set him on the path of Neo-Classicism. Sadly, in Germany, the bottom of his trunk dropped out on the road home, and he lost all the pictures he had painstakingly made, his collection of books, and the medals he had won from the Royal Academy. It isn't really surprising, then, that he surrounded himself with conspicuous possessions all of which were laden with intellectual value. The collection reflected his passion for architecture and satisfied the absence of wealth he had experienced as a younger man.
He also began to visualize a purpose for his collection; in 1806 he became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and opened up his house to students the day before and the day after each of the six public lectures he was required to give. This gave his students the opportunity to see models, stonework and casts which related to particular aspects of building design. Since the Grand Tour was no longer feasible for the majority of Sir John's students, during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the collection of visual aids that he had amassed became a valuable teaching resource.
The Museum Itself
The museum is worth visiting even if it's just for the experience of touring a Georgian London townhouse which remains, more or less, as it was in Sir John's time. The museum spans three houses, numbers 12, 13 and 14 Lincoln Inns Fields. A loggia5 has been erected on to the front of the middle house. This is an architectural oddity, which many visitors believe has been added at a later date. Although it was actually designed by Sir John, its style is far removed from his signature Neo-Classical style. In fact, its clean lines, the added-on medieval plinths and the classical statues all make it rather reminiscent of 1930s art deco.
So, What's in the Collection?
Sir John's house was designed both to be lived in and to display his vast collection, and inside you'll find a curious mismatch of living quarters and display areas. At times it's difficult to know where one area begins and another ends. On the walls of a dressing room are bits of stonemasonry, there's a nook on the way up the stairs with a bust of Shakespeare in it. On the walls of another room are peculiar, round convex mirrors which apparently inspired John Tenniel's famous illustrations of Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking Glass. There's also a skeleton in a closet. Not currently on display, it's been taken from a number of different skeletons, most probably from one of London's many plague pits.
Each room seems to be arranged in random order. In the 'Crypt', for example, the sarcophagus of ancient Egyptian King Seti I lies besides casts for modern Neo-Classical statues. There's a mock-Gothic Monk's Room, ancient Roman, Greek and Phonecian stonework and figurative stained glass which probably originated from the abandoned aristocratic homes of Revolutionary France. There's also some small items: books, medals, amulets and miniatures, all placed incongruously throughout the house.
The main display room which runs the width of the three houses resembles a dust-free stonemason's yard. What's striking in this room is that it has so much light. It's surprising, then, that the rooms were designed to inspire a sense of melancholy. Its roof is made of glass, and, like much of the house, mirrors are used to add light and false space, almost as if Sir John wanted to make the collection look bigger than it really is.
Imaginative display is the cornerstone of the Sir John Soane Museum. At every step there is a surprise. As you first go into the Picture Room you're confronted with a series of oil originals of the Rake's Progress by Hogarth. As you look to your left and your right the wooden-panelled walls are covered with more pictures, then, after spending a few minutes there, one of the museum's wardens clasps a secret handle to reveal that the walls are actually massive cupboard doors which open out to reveal even more paintings beneath. One side opens out onto an internal balcony which drops down onto the Monk's Room in the Crypt below. Above there is more display space and a huge stained glass window faces onlookers. Periodically you can hear visitors' gasps as another of the house's secrets is revealed.
Why Was the House Left Intact to the Nation?
You can tell Sir John had fun with his house, jiggling and re-arranging his collection constantly. But why was this most personal of lifetime achievements left intact to the Nation? A good question, which requires some family background...
Soane had two sons, John and George, both of whom were rather a disappointment to him. Both married unsuitable women, and showed little interest in pursuing careers in the family trade (the driven John Senior was keen to establish a dynasty of architects). John Junior died a tragically early death, while George went on to become a career wastrel, spendthrift and ne'er-do-well. Among other things George's parents had to bail him out three times, he got his wife's sister pregnant, and he ended up in a debtors' prison. To cap it all, it appears that George wrote an anonymous, defamatory piece for the Sunday papers about Sir John, calling him a cheat, a charlatan and a copyist. George's mother found out that it was her own son who had been so vociferous and she died not long afterwards, purportedly of a broken heart.
Sir John never forgave George his misdemeanours. Instead of merely leaving everything in a will to the State, Sir John made absolutely sure that George wouldn't get a thing. Soane was in such a position of power by this point, with good friends in the government, that he was able leave the house and all its effects by an Act of Parliament. After all, wills can be contested, Acts of Parliament cannot.
The wording of the Act states that the house was left 'for the benefit of Amateurs and Students of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture'. These days the museum is frequented by the sorts of tourists and locals who perhaps don't fancy the trek through the labyrinthine corridors of the British Museum, but instead would like see a genuine period house, without travelling into the deepest countryside to do so. The Sir John Soane Museum is a fascinating place and a marvellous experience, allowing you all the benefits of visiting a museum and a genuine period home.
The museum is at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP and is open from Tuesday to Saturday inclusive from 10am - 5pm. Also on the first Tuesday evening of each month, from 6pm - 9pm, parts of the Museum are lit with candles. Admission is free, but they do appreciate a donation. To get there from Holborn Underground Station: turn left out of the station. Take the first left down Gate Street, turn right at the end, and you'll see Lincoln Inn Fields in front of you. At the corner, turn left. Walk past the flat-fronted town houses. Its GPS position is N51:30:59 W0:06:59.
There are facilities and/or restrictions for children, provision for overseas visitors (languages) and disabled access (including facilities for the deaf and blind) is catered for. For more information, consult the Soane Museum Official Website.
Also Worth Visiting in the Area
Between a barber's and the back end of the Imperial Cancer Research offices is the very historic 'Old Curiosity Shop', at 13 - 14 Portsmouth Street. As it's painted front declares, it was built in 1567 and was made famous by Charles Dickens' book The Old Curiosity Shop. It used to sell old curiosities, but now it sells second-hand clothes.
Lincoln's Inn is the oldest of Britain's four Inns of Court6. Inns are societies which exclusively hold the right to confer the title of barrister on law students. In and around Lincoln's Inn, there are a number of smart barristers' chambers. There isn't any public access, but if you sneak in around the back via Carey Street, you'll probably spot a number of be-gowned barristers with extremely richly-dressed clients. There's even a legal wig shop on Carey Street...
Lincoln's Inn Fields itself was designed by Inigo Jones in the 17th Century and is one of the largest city squares in London. It comprises green open spaces, flowerbeds, civic benches, netball and tennis courts, a bandstand and a marque café. In its early days it was a popular place to meet for duels, but today its function as a gathering place is more often fulfilled by lunching secretaries.