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Museum piece: a new book on Sir John Soane's museum highlights the changes that have been made to this strange shrine to an extraordinary architect.


The continuing existence of Sir John Soane's Museum in London seems almost miraculous. It may have been established by Act of Parliament in 1833, but that was no guarantee of survival. Had Soane's estranged delinquent son, and his son, been successful in their challenge to Soane's will and his bequest to the nation, the museum would have been closed, and it might very well have been hit by German bombs during World War II (near neighbours were). The chief enemy, however, was taste. In 1863, as Tim Knox reveals in his new book on the museum, the architect William Burges described it as a 'very useless institution' and called for its principal treasures to be divided between the National Gallery, the Institute of British Architects and the British Museum, considering the test of the collection to be 'of very little value'. Burges was a muscular Goth and would have had little sympathy for Soane's thin, contrived neo-classicism, a style in which it may seem, as Sir John Summerson later put it, 'as if all mass had been exhausted'. (But how sad that Burges's own amazing house, in Melbury Road, Kensington, wasn't preserved as a museum with its contents.)

Not everyone was quite so prejudiced. The following decade the antiquary Edward Walford could claim that the museum, 'small as it is, may be said to be almost as useful to the student as is the Louvre in Paris'. But it was out of fashion and only intermittently open to the public, so no wonder that few visited Soane's extraordinary shrine to his own taste, acquisitiveness and glory (Fig 2). In 1902, the journalist George R. Sims wrote that 'few know of this Museum, the names on its visitors' book being mostly foreign and provincial' and found 'the rooms full of strange inanimate things, but empty of all animate'.

In the 20th century, however, Soane's reputation revived as interest in neo-classical architecture of the late Georgian period grew, a process encouraged by the protests against the demolition of almost all of Soane's remarkable interiors at the Bank of England in the 1920s. Perhaps this revival is most happily symbolised by the familiar design of the General Post Office's standard telephone kiosk with its Soanian dome and reeded door surround (the version known to cognoscenti as the K2). This was chosen in a competition in 1925--the year that its designer, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, became a life trustee of the museum. Since then, the curious house with its strange, pretentious facade in Lincoln's Inn Fields (Fig. 1) has become almost too well known and is open almost every day rather than three days a week only in the spring and summer months.

It is an interesting question as to whether Soane would be so revered today as an architect if his museum had not survived to testify to his skill, originality and oddness. Perhaps he would be, as he was honoured in his lifetime and secured some plum commissions. But it is curious today how he has become almost a cult figure among modernists, having replaced Hawksmoor as the favourite architect's architect, for if ever there was a tangible protest against the aridity of the modernist aesthetic and a powerful alternative to fashionable minimalism it is surely this gloriously cluttered, highly decorated and deliberately introverted antiquarian paradise. Unhappy, jealous and paranoid, the architect was not an attractive figure, as Gillian Darley's 1999 biography of him makes clear, but there can be no doubt that his strange genius rose above mere eccentricity.

The literature on Soane and on his creation is now large. John Britton published an account of the museum in 1827 with the revealing title The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, and the architect himself published A Description of the Residence of Sir John Soane a few years later. This detailed guide, revised by subsequent curators, went into many editions before being replaced in 1955 by A New Description ... written by Summerson. This is now in its 11th edition. So why the need for a new book about this enchanting institution? The answer is two-fold. First, Tim Knox's introduction to the museum's history and contents is accessible and succinct as well as sumptuously illustrated with new colour photographs by Derry Moore. Second, although the founder stipulated that his house should be left in the state it was at the time of his death, it has, in fact, changed over the years so that guides need constant updating.

Soane's museum is an object lesson in how it is impossible to legislate for the future. Some of his displays were thinned out to accommodate the wide crinolined dresses of the Victorian era, and in 1890, that interesting architect but irresponsible curator, James Wild, replaced the founder's office and first Picture Room with a Soanian room of his own design. In the 20th century, apart from the installation of electric lighting and other technologies, most of the changes have been restorations in the true sense of that word. Since 1945, under Summerson and his successors as curator, Peter Thornton, Margaret Richardson and now Knox, damage caused by war and other alterations have been rectified. In recent years, for example, the coloured glass Soane put in his windows and elaborate skylights, and which was blown out by bomb blast, has been put back.

The museum has also expanded. The projecting stone front of no. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields (erected contrary to building regulations: there's modernist arrogance for you) is flanked by two sober brick facades also designed by Soane. In fact, he built the one on the left (no. 12) first and then moved out of it after building no. 13. Subsequently, in 1824, he acquired no. 14 and rebuilt the house as a property to let, while using the site of its stables to build his unique Picture Room, with its movable, hinged walls (Fig. 3). In 1969, no. 12--long let to tenants--was taken back by the museum and its Breakfast Room, with its painted 'starfish' vault ceiling, was restored. And then, in 1996, the last house--no. 14--which had not been part of Soane's bequest, was purchased and its interior has now been restored for use for the museum's educational programme and as offices. This has freed parts of no. 13 for full restoration and opening to the public--the spaces on the upper floors where Soane had his private apartments and created his Model Room, for the display of his architectural models.



These ambitious and exciting restoration projects ate practicable because of the wealth of documentary and visual records of the precise appearance of the house and its contents in Soane's day. For another way in which Soane might be seen as 'modern' is in his obsession with his place in history and his recording of every detail of his career for posterity. For this, posterity must be grateful. The only problem now is that not too few but too many people walk and squeeze through the narrow, cluttered spaces inside his home and museum, so endangering the stability and condition of the precious fabric. Obscurity and public indifference are not necessarily a bad thing.
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Title Annotation:ARCHITECTURE
Author:Stamp, Gavin
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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