If it is raining, or worse, on the day you visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum, pause to consider your good fortune. In Sir John Soane’s day, when he opened his home and collections to amateurs and students of painting, architecture and sculpture, you would not have been admitted in “wet or dirty weather”. Today, whether in rain or shine, from the moment you pluck up the courage to ring the bell on the imposing door of Number 13, Lincoln Inns Fields, you enter one of the most surprising and atmospheric museums in London.
Consisting of three rebuilt houses, the museum was the private residence and Museum of Sir John Soane, one of England’s greatest architects. Born in 1753, Soane acquired a passion for collecting while studying architecture in Italy. Returning to England, he married, had two sons and demonstrated his considerable talent by winning the prestigious commission to design the Bank of England in 1788. It was during his time as the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy that he decided to display his collections to educate and inspire his students. In 1833, by means of an Act of Parliament, he established the house as a Museum, open to the public, asking that the house remain “as nearly as possible in the state in which he shall leave it”. From the old smell to the arrangements of objects, everything you will find in this house contributes to the sense that Soane’s wishes have been well respected and that your experience resembles that of the eager amateur of the early nineteenth century.
It is not surprising that as the premier architect of his day, Soanes would have come up with some remarkable solutions for displaying such a vast collection of Egyptian, classical, medieval and renaissance antiquities, gems and casts, clocks, a massive library, architectural drawings and prints, two striking series of Hogarth’s paintings, a Reynolds, some beautiful Canalettos and much, much more. Throughout the house, the abundant use of mirrors and skylights deftly deals with the problem of flat London light. There is a crypt in the basement intended to have the atmosphere of Roman catacombs, and a smallish picture room containing more than 100 works on hinged screens. Every surface of the house is engaged in the display of art and it is the density of the work and the cleverness of the architecture that makes this museum so much fun to visit.
On the day I was there, the house was pleasantly filled although certainly not crowded. Staff took a casual approach to us interlopers, gossiping amongst themselves about the affairs of the day. I now know that museum staff is preparing for a Trustees meeting, which staff member will be working from home for the afternoon and all the intricacies of scheduling lunch breaks. Instead of detracting from the experience, it made me feel even more like a visitor in a private residence and less like another tourist in another museum. This sense was enhanced by the fact that as new visitors arrived, the doorbell could be heard throughout the house. “Here comes another amateur or student to be inspired and educated, I thought.” Interestingly enough, just as the Museum is like no other in London, it attracts a type of tourist you will not see at the more famous monuments. On the afternoon I was there it was a mostly British crowd with a smattering of continentals (you could tell by their clothes – very British looking but too clean and perfect) and Americans ( you could tell from their shoes and their accents) who remarked that the house and contents could make you a fan of Victoriana. The fact that Soanes died in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, had escaped them. No mind, they were having a wonderful time and so was I.
When you have finished your visit, you can continue your atmospheric encounter with the past by wandering through the peaceful and dignified Inns of Court. On your way, you might encounter a harassed clerk loaded down with legal briefs or a barrister on his way to or from Court with his robes flapping in the wind. It was Thackeray who observed that “Colleges, Schools and Inns of Court still have respect for antiquity and maintain a great number of the customs and institutions of our ancestors”. For a moment, you have found that illusive London of our imaginations, which is the perfect finish to a visit to the John Soanes Museum.