Sir John Soane’s Museum

Words George Upton Photography Jasper Fry


The Sir John Soane’s Museum – housed in three handsome terraced houses that overlook Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London – is a remarkable monument to a largely forgotten man. Built initially as a home for Soane’s family and an office for his architectural practice, the house would be continually remodelled throughout his life, evolving into a unique architectural laboratory and a gallery for a vast, eclectic collection of painting, sculpture, artefacts and drawings.

With much of his most important work, such as the Bank of England and the Law Courts in Westminster, having since been destroyed, the house is Soane’s main legacy. Established as a public museum by an Act of Parliament, it has remained largely unchanged since Soane’s death in 1837 – when, on a bright summer’s day, I’m there to meet the museum’s director, Bruce Boucher, the light streaming through the coloured glass of the lanterns still falls, just as Soane intended, across an idiosyncratic clutter of architectural reliefs, classical sculpture and chipped busts from antiquity.

The museum provides a unique window into the mind of a brilliant and complex man and to discover more, Sekford sat down with Boucher (pictured above) to discuss how Soane came to architecture, the story of the collection and the influence Soane continues to have today.

Top: Soane was especially sensitive to light and many rooms in the house are lit by lanterns, or skylights. Bottom: The centrepiece of Soane’s collection – the sarcophagus of King Seti – is said to be the most important object ever found in Egypt. It was bought by Soane in 1824 for £2,000.

What was Soane’s introduction to architecture?

In those days people followed their father’s profession. Soane’s father – a bricklayer – died when Soane was about 12, but his older brother was already working and introduced him to the practice of George Dance the Younger, a fashionable city architect. Dance, who is a founder member of the Royal Academy, encouraged Soane to attend the free Academy schools.

While studying there he submitted drawings for their competition, and won a silver and then a gold medal, and was given a travel scholarship. So for two years, he travelled on the continent, primarily in Italy, and there made many important contacts with the aristocracy. If it hadn’t been for that, he probably would have been completely forgotten, and never have risen past being a builder carrying out someone else’s ideas.

Soane’s bust, placed at the heart of the museum, preserving the architect’s crowded and eccentric hang, as is required by the Soane Museum Act

How do you understand his style as an architect and a collector?

It’s very individual. If you look at the facade of the museum, it could almost be something from the 1930s, with the exception of the casts of medieval capitals from Westminster Hall. There’s a curious juxtaposition here, as there is with his interior, and a lot of his architecture is a kind of visual opportunism.

Soane was at the beginning of a movement of historicism in architecture, where people could do Greek, Roman and Gothic styles, where the patron could choose what they wanted. He liked to combine styles, I think to express his own artistic flair. Soane’s approach to collecting is the same thing – it’s eclectic, there’s no logic to the order, he just saw a way to make a visual ensemble out of it.

Top: Soane’s collection of paintings includes works by J.M.W Turner, Joshua Reynolds and Canaletto. Bottom: Soane’s hand can be seen in every aspect of the museum.

Is it possible to understand Soane’s personality through his collection?

Very much so. In a way, you notice the absence of his presence – you’re always thinking why he put an object in a particular place, why he decided to do this or that – and at the same time he is everywhere. You go into the dome, and there is his bust, you go into the model room, and there are classical temples and Pompeii, and beneath them models of Soane’s designs for the Bank of England. He is constantly inserting himself into your field of vision, and into discussion.

I think he must have been a difficult man to get on with – he argued with anyone and regularly fell out with people. He had a sense of grievance, in part because he was a self-made man, and was always trying to prove himself. He had friends but also a lot of enemies, and of course the sad thing was that he alienated both his sons and rarely saw his family after his wife died in 1815. It would take a psychoanalyst to work it out properly, but I think the impetus for collecting was for it to take the place of the children he lost. As for a lot of collectors, the collection became his children.

Top: An alcove of the house that has been recently restored and opened to the public. Bottom: The large central dome that illuminates the main collection.

Why is it important to remember Soane today?

It’s always interesting to stand in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine the world from their viewpoint, and it’s a rather unusual and unorthodox voyage into antiquity, into the past, that you get with Soane. At the same time, he was very much interested in contemporary art, and hoped to instigate a new school of British art and architecture, while also collecting Peruvian pottery, Egyptian artefacts and Persian manuscripts – especially towards the end of his life he was trying to make his collection as catholic as possible. Soane’s collection is important as a snapshot of a transition period between the house museum and the nineteenth century Enlightenment museum. It’s a different way of looking at things than what we’re accustomed to.

Top: Soane’s curation is not chronological or by style, but rather an eclectic “visual opportunism”. Bottom: One of twelve sculptures by contemporary artist Marc Quinn currently exhibited in the museum.

Continued from above…

Soane also wanted the museum to be an academy for the arts, he wanted painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, anyone, to come here and be inspired by it. Only last year Sarah Lucas approached us to mount a version of the pavilion she presented at the Venice Biennale, because she was inspired by Soane, even painting the walls of the pavilion the same yellow as the drawing room of the museum.

I had seen the work in Venice and would never have thought that it had anything to do with Soane, but the fact she saw something that I didn’t was intriguing. We put on the exhibition and it brought in a completely different audience. With that and our current Marc Quinn exhibition, I feel that we are carrying on Soane’s mission today.

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