Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of England’s most innovative architects, an esteemed professor at the Royal Academy, and the principal designer of the Bank of England. He was also a wildly eccentric enthusiast of the ancient Mediterranean, converting his London home into an architectural laboratory, an educational studio, and a showcase overflowing with curiosities and artefacts reflective of his eclectic tastes. Soane delighted in constantly transforming his property and its interior, ultimately bequeathing his house to the nation through an Act of Parliament with the condition that it be kept as a museum exactly as he arranged it on his death.
Soane did not curate his collection by typology – for that, one could simply wander down the road to the British Museum. Instead, he wished to offer a creative architectural voyage heavily inspired by his travels in the Mediterranean: a confluence of how he imagined the ancient past, his vision for the future of 19th-century London, and his quirky, at times bizarre, sense of humour.
Visitors marvel at Soane’s unique designs throughout his estate – from the glowing dome in his Breakfast Room to the hanging arches of his ‘Pompeian red’ Dining Room and Library – but the real treats for the archaeologically inclined are the hidden artefacts, some dusty and dark, and their aesthetic conversation with their surroundings.
The Dome Area and Colonnade are, in this sense, almost overwhelming. Here, a statue of Apollo, flanked in goldfiltered light from above, welcomes visitors into a cramped hallway covered on nearly every surface with architectural fragments and sculptures. Keen eyes – with a little help from a guide – will be able to pick out a marble capital from the original attic of the Pantheon in Rome (2nd century AD), a fragment in the shape of a female torso from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens (5th century BC), and a triumphant bust of Soane himself.
The star piece, however, lies in the Crypt below. Soane wanted his basement to feel like a Roman catacomb, and at the centre of its winding niches he placed the Egyptian alabaster sarcophagus of King Seti I (1303-1290 BC). The interior of the sarcophagus is inscribed with a section from the Book of the Gates, a story of the soul’s passage to the underworld (see CWA 54, p.60). Looking back up at Apollo on high, coffin-side visitors might feel as though they are there already.
There is also plenty of fodder elsewhere for a fantastic game of ‘I Spy’. Be sure to look out for the carved ceremonial Maori spear leaning in the shadows, the only one of its kind, as well as the set of pre-Columbian pottery from Peru in the Monk’s Parlour, some of the first to arrive in England. Visitors with foresight may prebook a visit to the Model Room, which holds a detailed – and fairly archaeologically accurate – model of Pompeii as it looked in 1820, made from cork and timber.
These are just a few of the hidden features of Sir John Soane’s Museum, a small house easily enjoyed in less than an hour, but one that would take years of careful inquiry to truly appreciate.
Review: Nicholas Bartos
Images: Sir John Soane’s Museum/Gareth Gardner