Monday, 25 January 2016

Sir John Soane’s House

13 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
 London WC2A 3BP

Thursday January 21 2016

Just across Lincoln’s Inn Fields from the Hunterian Museum you can find the ‘Free to enter’ Sir John Soane’s House and Museum, it having been his home, his place of work and even in his time a Museum which offered free entrance then too. You could also say it was a gallery given the splendid array of artwork he both acquired and commissioned. On  one of London’s cooler winter mornings Jo and I divested ourselves of phones (they are very strict and supervise you switching off) and of course there are no cameras allowed – not that the illumination  was really good enough for much and at times was barely light enough to see! 

As the guide book (to be salvaged from its six month sojourn in store along with several other boxes of ‘stuff’) informs, the house is in fact the middle of three including what was a  stable block, now housing the amazing Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ in its original place and state. Having moved earlier this year I have some sympathy for the Soanes who had downsized from Pitzhanger Manor out in the country (Ealing) to this more modest place in London and so found it difficult to find enough space for the very many books and artefacts Sir John owned and wished to display.

In some ways he was a victim of his own success – in 1776 whilst a student at the Royal Academy Schools he won a prize for his design of a Triumphal Bridge and with the reward money financed a ‘Grand Tour’ trip to Italy and Greece from where he brought back innumerable examples of classical architecture: bits of frieze and cornice and statuary and urns and sarcophagi which are now ranged around the house. Very few are labelled either because he never did label them or because you are supposed to know.

Certainly anything more than a superficial glance would slow down the flow of people traffic through the house. There is a large reception cum dining room at the front but the overriding impression is of niches and corridors and small spaces full of the above memorabilia, which come in all shapes and sizes. His study, painted in Pompeian Red  for warmth and as a tribute, doubled as his washroom (the bathroom on the second floor is yet to be restored) and with the exception of the front rooms the light is poor enough to wonder how he managed to work and draw in such detail.

Admittedly he was very ingenious in the way he tried to get light into the many corners – there are cupolas and windows where you least expect them and a very generous use of mirrors and slivers of mirrors to maximise light. Today was dull and wintry but I cannot imagine it ever being very bright and there is also a feeling of pervasive dust. This may sound deeply unattractive but in fact it is quite atmospheric and certainly unique as a museum in the world of the digitised archive…

More space was clearly needed for the ever expanding collection – there are ‘models’ of his projects both built and unbuilt and the polished drawings of his plans as executed by the faithful Joseph Michael Gandy and then drawings and models by his predecessors and contemporaries.  The ceilings are all worth looking up for – we wondered whether the range of nymphs and cherubim were quite ‘his style’ they seemed to sit oddly with the more classical aspects of his designs but were told they were what was fashionable/usual for the time and income bracket.

You can also look down into the cellars or basements which offered additional displays of marble bits and pieces. He took over Henry Holland’s collection, having been a pupil of the architect Henry Holland (architect) and doubtless saw it as a tribute. As a conceit, and because there were still some remains of an earlier monastery,  Soane named the downstairs area ‘The Monk’s Parlour’ having fabricated a Padre Giovanni – the area was designed to make you gloomy and melancholy and apparently Soane would spend time down there once a widower and ‘dining alone’. 

Throughout the house there are mentions of his wife Eliza – he married the daughter of one of his builders and they seem to have been a devoted couple, though there is little sense of Eliza as a person in her own right. Her breakfast room is intimate and has pictures of her dog Fanny, buried on the premises in a large funerary thing.

Soane blamed his surviving son (the other having died of consumption) for his wife’s death as she muttered, as most parents do at some point, ‘You will be the death of me’. Admittedly the son in question was quite a wastrel, not inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps and had just been sent to the Debtors’ Prison.

Talking of Debtors’ Prison, one of the stand out exhibits in this house is the small room crammed with paintings on four walls – these are also double stacked with the use of clever shutters that fold out to reveal yet more works  including of course the famous Hogarth series painting ‘The Rake’s Progress’ which depicts the downfall of a young man with too much disposable income and not enough sense or conscience as he abandons his faithful (and pregnant ) fiancée en route. She does not abandon him and indeed attempts to rescue and rehabilitate him, to little avail as he ends his life in Bedlam. If you enjoy narrative art there is lots to look at here and Hogarth was the master of these series. The room also has ‘The Election’ which is good fun and not as dated as you might think…

Inspired more by Hogarth than Sir John Soane (Jo never did like an architect and while she tolerated this house more than 2 Willow Road she was not a fan) we shall head out West next week to visit the artist’s country house. 

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