Discover the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London
Sir John Soane's Museum, is an extraordinary house and repository of treasures that unveils the legacy of one of England's greatest architects and collectors. Sir John Soane, renowned for his neoclassical designs, built and resided in this museum over two centuries ago. The museum, on Lincoln's Inn Fields in Holborn, London, preserves the ambiance of Soane's life and work, frozen in time since his passing in 1837. As a dedicated architect and collector, Soane established the museum with a vision to benefit "amateurs and students," opening its doors to the public in the early 19th century.
Home to an extensive array of antiquities, furniture, sculptures, paintings, and drawings, Soane's vast collections span Egyptian, Medieval, Renaissance, and Classical influences, reflecting his eclectic tastes. Some of the 30,000 drawing and painting collections feature works by renowned artists such as Canaletto, Hogarth, J. M. W. Turner, and more. The museum's unique history is intertwined with a parliamentary act in 1833, orchestrated by Soane himself to ensure the preservation of his house and collections after his death, whilst leaving his son – whom he despised – with nothing.
From 1988 to 2005, restorative efforts funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation, in New York were carried out on the museum. Spaces like the drawing rooms, study, and courtyards were improved upon and returned to their original splendour under the careful eye of architects Peter Thornton and Margaret Richardson. The three courtyards were also renovated and the pasticcio reinstated in the monument court at the heart of the museum. As a sign of its exclusivity, only 90 visitors are allowed inside at any given time, creating an intimate experience.
A Glimpse into Sir John Soane's World
Sir John Soane, a distinguished Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, was one of the leading architects of the Regency era. As a student he was awarded the Royal Academy’s prestigious Gold Medal for Architecture, receiving a royal bursary to undertake a Grand Tour of Europe.
During his travels Soane came across the ruins of Ancient Rome, Paestum, and Pompeii all of which would later fuel an enduring fascination with Classical art and architecture. Throughout his career he was asked to design many high-profile buildings such as the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery, and not to mention his own home-turned-museum.
The Three Houses of Sir John Soane
The museum is spread across three buildings No.s 12, 13, and 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which were acquired, reconstructed, and maintained by Soane. Close to the Bank of England, where he was an architect for 45 years, the location of these buildings was of paramount interest to him.
No. 12 was Sir John Soane’s first purchase in 1792. It was demolished and rebuilt as his home and office. In 1807, he then purchased No. 13, moving in and creating a larger office in what is today’s Dome Area. During this time No. 12 was rented out. Soane came to fill No. 13 with his growing collection of treasures and trinkets. In late 1823, he bought No. 14, again demolishing and rebuilding the house (1824-25). As an extension of No. 13, Soane’s collections spilled over into a new Picture Room in No. 14 with minimal issue.
Becoming the Sir John Soane’s Museum
Due to his extensive collections of paintings, sculptures, architectural drawings, and other antiquities, Soane’s home was already well on the way to becoming a functioning museum by the time of his demise. As predetermined by the private Act in 1833, the house passed into the possession of a Board of Trustees. The Trustees, who continue to oversee the matter today, then ensured Soane’s wishes were granted and the buildings were opened as a museum.
With the narrow nature of the hallways, crowded arrangements, and dimly lit rooms the organisation of the museum can at first appear a little haphazard. But the layout is in fact intentional. For example, in the Model Room pieces of Soane’s own work are arranged beneath models of the ancient ruins that inspired them. It seems like there’s too much going on but in reality it's all to refer to some higher, poetic juxtaposition.
Sir John Soane’s Museum: An Enchanting Collection
Antiquities, Medieval, and Non-Western Objects
Sir John Soane's Museum boasts an impressive collection of antiquities, mediaeval artefacts, and non-western objects rivalling the British Museum. From Greek and Roman bronzes and Pompeii artefacts, to cinerary urns, Roman glass, and 18th-century Chinese ceramics.
Notable acquisitions include the Sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, adorned with Egyptian hieroglyphs, a grand purchase at £2000 in 1824. Its acquisition marked Soane's most expensive art purchase and when it arrived in 1825 the celebrations were lavish and long-lasting – three days in fact!
The sculpture collection at the museum showcases masterpieces, including a white marble bust of Soane by Francis Leggatt Chantrey, and Sir Richard Westmacott's plaster model for "Nymph unclasping her Zone." Miniature copies of ancient sculptures, such as the famous Diana of Ephesus, and plaster casts of renowned antique sculptures like Aphrodite of Cnidus, Hercules Hesperides, and Apollo Belvedere, add to the museum’s artistic richness.
Paintings and Architectural Drawings
The heart of the museum lies in its paintings and architectural drawings and models. The museum houses over 30,000 architectural drawings, including Soane's designs throughout his career and significant acquisitions like the 57 volumes of Robert Adam and James Adam's drawings. There are also 252 architectural models, including those of the Bank of England and ancient Roman and Greek buildings. Noteworthy drawings by Christopher Wren and John Thorpe's book of architecture – one of 10,000 books in the museum – containing plans and elevations of Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, add historical depth to the collection.
Navigating the Sir John Soane Museum Today
Today, more than 100,000 visitors explore the museum annually. Due to the fact that there are only 90 allowed inside at a time, this often results in a lot of queuing outside. However, it is well worth the wait to wander beneath the skylights, and marvel at the famous sarcophagus, paintings, and other treasures in the dim lighting, reflected cleverly by the mirrors.
It is also possible to explore the Sir John Soane’s Museum virtually by clicking the link.
The museum's commitment to preserving Soane's vision has meant that many architects can take inspiration from his collection for themselves, as he once did.
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