The Breakfast Room.
The sequence of rooms that Sir John Soane created within the ground floor of 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, completed to his designs in 1792-93, are among the most important interiors of their period in England. Now the most striking of these rooms has been recreated and, for the first time in its 200-year history, opened to the public.
The Dining Room and the Breakfast Room not only formed the heart of Soane's first home in Lincoln's Inn Fields but also, with the entrance hall and staircase which flank them, pioneered many of Soane's idiosyncratic and abstract Neo-Classical forms and details. The rooms also introduced some of Soane's characteristic schemes of decoration. For example, the Dining Room marks Soane's first use of Pompeian Red for walls - indeed this is arguably the first domestic room in Britain to be painted entirely in a colour that was to become increasingly popular, especially for gallery interiors such as those Soane created at Dulwich of 1811. More significant is the Breakfast Room, for it contains the earliest of Soane's starfish ceiling vaults, a very personalised development of the conventional groined vault that Soane used in several of his Bank of England interiors after 1788, notably in the Bank Stock Office of 1792 and in country houses such as Bentley Priory, Middlesex in 1798 and in Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire in 1793-1800. The starfish vault, in which the four arrises of the groin vault are flattened and embellished to form a four-pointed star, was to become something of a Soane speciality after its use in the Breakfast Room. The embellishment in this first example is not achieved by plaster decorations, as in most of the later starfish vaults, but with trompe-l'oeil painting showing a vine covered trellis with blue sky beyond. Soane created a second version of this vault (bearing very similar painted decoration and detail) in the library of his suburban retreat of Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing in 1800-01. Other examples of this vault type designed by Soane appear in the Drawing Room of Pellwall House, Staffordshire in 1822, in the Dining Room of 10 Downing Street, Whitehall, in 1826, in the long-lost National Debt Redemption Office in the City of London in 1817 and in the Privy Council Chamber, Whitehall, in 1823-26.
Within 10 years of completing 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, Soane had outgrown the house. In October 1813 he moved next door, having designed and built a new house in 1812, number 13, which was to be his home and office until his death in 1837 and, more fatuously, his museum. The consequence of Soane's move was that the interiors within number 12 were forgotten and then virtually obliterated by succeeding generations of occupiers.
In 1969 the Soane Museum, which had been established as a national museum by Act of Parliament after Soane's death, acquired number 12. It was put to utilitarian use, being turned into offices, study rooms and storage for most of Soane's huge collection of over 40 000 architectural drawings. The first move to reclaim the lost Breakfast Room decoration was taken in 1970 when Sir John Summerson, then curator of the museum, had most of the obscuring paint removed from its trompe-l'oeil painted vault. This was revealed to be of outstanding quality and probably painted by John Crace, who was one of the leading muralists of late eighteenth-century England. (He had worked on the decoration of Carlton House and was adept in the fashionable French Neo-Classical manner. Certainly Crace was paid [pounds] 40 by Soane in September 1794 for works in the new house).
It has taken over 20 years to complete the job Summerson started, and this has only been accomplished due to the enthusiasm of Peter Thornton, who retired as curator last April, to funds raised in the US by the Sir John Soane Foundation which supplement money from MEPC, the property company, and the Department of National Heritage, and to the professional expertise of Ian Bristow, who undertook the archaeological analysis of the ground-floor room to determine the original colours, to architects Julian Harrap and to paint conservator Pauline Plummer. The public route from the museum to the ground floor of number 12 has been achieved by re-opening the door to the yard beyond the stair in 12, which Soane had blocked when he left the house in 1812. Thornton's object was to return the room to its original appearance based on contemporary evidence - notably Joseph Gandy's water colour perspective of c1798, on the evidence revealed by Summerson's cleaning exercise and on Bristow's paint analysis. To achieve this, Thornton has commissioned furniture, fabric, and a carpet to match those shown in the Gandy perspective with electric light provided by reproduction argand oil lamps of Soane's design.
But getting the colours right has been most problematic. The first task was to restore the ceiling, the colours of which are somewhat more pale, with the sky blue having turned somewhat green, after their years under whitewash and after the scouring they received in 1970. So all newly applied colours have not only had to correspond with Bristow's analysis of the authentic paint colours used but have also had, to achieve a harmonious relationship with the faded original ceiling colours. As Thornton says, the use of strictly authentic colours 'could have been too bright, so the problem is to strike a balance between the old colours and the new'. The aesthetic success of the restoration, as well as its success as a piece of authentic recreation, depends on the skill with which this balance has been struck. Peter Thornton explains his approach to the problem: 'Only bring taste in at the end. First replace the colour you think is right, try it in the room with the things that will go with it to see if you can live with it. If not, then tone it down - never put your patina of age on before you start.' Thornton's guiding principle is his perception of Soane and of the house when new: 'It is vital to respect Soane's sensibility rather than one's own. Soane was not interested in patina. He wanted a clean bright house, and so did Mrs Soane. I think the general appearance of the room is one of which Mrs Soane would not have been ashamed.' As far as the room's fresh, bright appearance goes Thornton is probably right, for on 9 September 1809 Mrs Soane wrote to her husband urging him not to forget to re-paint the Dining Room and Library (as the Breakfast Room was also called) since they were in such a state as to make the whole house look shabby. It seems that Soane heeded his wife and quickly, too, for on 30 September 1809 he received a bill for [pounds]66/14/0d for painting work in the house, including the Library and Front Parlour.
The Gandy watercolour offers little firm evidence for the exact colours beyond suggesting that the blue of the sky behind the trellis was lighter than the blue on the upper wall area embraced by the vault. This difference could be no more than a trick of the light recorded by Gandy but this apparent relationship has not been duplicated in the restoration. The lower area of the wall is occupied by mahogany bookcases as shown in the Gandy perspective (most of which have been newly made) with the areas of wall between painted a strong yellow ochre with a lightly grained surface to, as Thornton describes it, give 'life to it'. The authority for the strength of this colour depends almost entirely on Bristow's analysis and interpretation of paint samples, as does the colour of the wall area between the yellow ochre and the blue. Gandy's watercolour suggests that this area of wall was painted a different colour to distinguish it from the vault above and the architectural area below inhabited by bookcases, fire and door surrounds, mirrors and the like. This intermediate band of colour is an area of relative tranquillity, which not only separates the two main elements of the room but which acts as a frieze in which Soane displayed his Piranesi prints and various sculptures as if they were metopes in a doric entablature.
Soane's choice of colour for this frieze, if the recreation is accurate, is most interesting. In the early nineteenth century, the perception of colour was changing and a new range of colour was gaining favour. This was largely due to Goethe's investigation of the effect of prisms on light and his consequent reordering of the Newtonian colour spectrum as explained in his two books, Beitrage zur Optik of 1791 and Zur Farbenlehre of 1810. Goethe also considered the symbolic, allegorical and mystical associations that colours possessed and in his writings gave meaning to colour in a way that seems to have been unknown in the eighteenth century. To Goethe, colours possessed. positive or negative qualities: they were hot or cold, gave a sense of space or feeling of enclosure. For example, he argued that blue rooms felt large but also empty and cold, while yellow rooms were bright, warm and agreeable.
One consequence of Goethe's reordering of the Newtonian spectrum was to emphasise the importance of tertiary colours (those colours formed by mixing secondary colours) to act as pleasing harmonising or neutralising colours between contrasting primary or secondary colours. This theory could be the root of Soane's band of peculiarly pinkish tertiary grey between the primary blue of the ceiling and yellow of the lower wall.
A greater challenge is presented by the colours chosen for the doors in the Breakfast Room, the walls of the staircase hall and the metal balusters to the stair. These comprise a most exotic collection of striking tints: the doors are painted in simulation of harewood - a type of stained sycamore, the hall is painted in an extremely strong, dark and mottled blue-grey stone colour while the balusters are painted a bronze that is distinctly brassy in colour. Their matching skirting is grained in imitation of satin wood. Ian Bristow explains: 'The discoveries I made here are most interesting. It became usual in the early nineteenth century to imitate patinated bronze with a green colour but here Soane used a colour found on old bronze coins, as he did on the rosettes in the Breakfast Room. The colour on the walls in the hall lacks the luminosity found in many contemporary Neo-Classical schemes, such as those by Adam, and pioneers the dulled, opaque palette that was to characterise nineteenth-century Neo-Classicism.'
But what emotional effect did Soane intend this room to have on those sitting within it? Thornton believes that 'Soane wanted the feeling of sitting outside in Italy, hence the sofa like a garden bench'. But Summerson offered an altogether more sombre interpretation in an article on Soane published in The Architectural Review in March 1978. He saw the Breakfast Room as one of the earliest expressions of Soane's lifelong fascination with tombs, sarcophagi and the 'Classical furniture of death' - sources that gripped Soane's imagination and which were to increasingly provide him with inspiration for the design and detailing of the widest variety of buildings. As Summerson observed, the Breakfast Room 'has a low, vaulted ceiling like a Roman tomb-chamber', an association reinforced by the way in which the vault is placed within the room.
The plan of the room is of a 2:3 proportion (or of a square and a half proportion as the early eighteenth-century Palladians would have termed it, making reference to Platonic ideal proportions revolving around the cube and its simple permutations) while the plan of the vault is of a 1:2 proportion, or a double square. The difference between these two proportions is resolved by a segmental arch placed against the fireplace wall, while the vault is related to the room below by having its lower points fixed by the width of the window, the segmental top of which rises snugly into the transverse curve of the vault. The arch itself is a repository of strange sepulchral details: it bears bronze-coloured plaster rosettes and masks placed as if in memory of some long-dead Roman Emperor whose ashes can be imagined deposited in the urn standing in the columbarium-like niche below, while it is reeded in a manner reminiscent of the strigillation pattern that conventionally embellished Roman sarcophagi (a motif which also seems to have inspired the concentric curves of the staircase balustrade in 12 and the ironwork of the external balcony to the first floor windows). It is in this obsession with the architecture of death that lies the origin of Soane's 'starfish' vault; an obsession that was also a monument to George Dance, Soane's early master and much-admired mentor, for Dance had initiated the form with a distinctly similar vault for the ballroom of Cranbury Park, Hampshire in c1775. As Dorothy Stroud points out in her 1971 biography of Dance, the Cranbury design was probably, and significantly, inspired by a plate in P.S. Bartoli's Gli Antichi Sepolcri ovvero Mausolei Romani, which was originally published in 1699 but of which a new edition appeared in 1768.
So how did Soane use this room, formed like the interior of a Roman tomb and decorated like an Italian bower? Presumably it was at least occasionally used, as shown in the Gandy perspective, for family breakfast and as a library and study, as suggested by the presence of bookcases and a desk in front of the window (this desk survives, now placed between the ground floor windows in the library of number 13). But it is known that Soane used his almost contemporary domed and sky-painted Library at Pitzhanger Manor as a repository for some of his collection of antiquities, while the domed and top-lit Breakfast Room he was to create in 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields after 1812 was used for interviews and as a waiting room. The Breakfast Room in number 12 must also have served as an anteroom to the adjacent Dining Room. This room has not been restored in the current scheme; on the contrary it has been painted a neutral grey, as opposed to its original Pompeian Red, and has been fitted out with modern minimalist glass cabinets, designed by Eva Jiricna, that display a small proportion of the museum's architectural drawings (AR June 95). Thornton explains the striking contrast in the treatment of the back and front rooms by pointing out that one of Soane's intentions in establishing his museum was 'to educate, and how better can this be done than by showing the public some of the drawings in the museum?' Of the museum's collection of 40 000 drawings, about 45 can be shown at a time. But, to Thornton, this gesture 'shows that the Soane Museum is not a dead place where nothing happens. The house was to be a mini-academy for the instruction of the young and also a model house'. Now, as well as being a pioneering Neo-Classical ideal home; the Soane is also a mini modern art gallery. Thornton is sure that Soane would have approved.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Breakfast Room in 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, England|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Over the volcano.|
|Next Article:||Architecture and practice: future directions.|
|Cedar House Inn & Yurts: the joys of camping with the comfort of home.|