Si Spencer, December 2017
THE JOHN SOANE MUSEUM is an astonishing time capsule, one man’s home preserved and kept intact for decades. Tucked away in the heart of Clerkenwell, it’s not a place you can casually drop in on. The very nature of the building means that attendance numbers must be limited and sadly disabled access is nigh-on impossible, so it’s best to contact the museum directly before making a visit. Trust me though, it’s well worth it.
Soane was one of Britain’s top architects between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth – it would take far too long to list all his work but the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery are probably two of his finest pieces (and if you’ve been reading elsewhere, you’ll also know that his grave in St. Pancras Churchyard was the inspiration for the iconic red telephone box). Soane naturally applied his skills to his own home so some of the rooms in his house are unique examples of bold and innovative architecture that still boggle the eye to this day…. And that’s before you even start looking at his collections.
Like every wealthy young buck of his generation, as a young man, Soane took the Grand Tour – a kind of Regency version of a Gap Year that involved Britons travelling Europe, generally misbehaving and snapping up works of art and curios to ship back to their vast homes to show off how cool and cultured they were. And Soane seriously went for it.
So staggering was his collection (and the magnificence of the house itself) that a private act of parliament was passed almost immediately after his death, declaring that the building and its contents remained untouched and preserved for posterity. Thanks to that act, stepping in to the museum is like entering a seriously fancy version of the Mary Celeste – every room looks as though Soane has just stepped out for a second and will pop back any moment to ask what you think of a particular acquisition.
And what acquisitions. Egyptian sarcophagi covered in hieroglyphics, sculptures from Ancient Greece and Rome, original paintings by Canaletto, Hogarth, Turner and Watteau and of course architectural sketches, drawings and models from scores of the greats. Like all great museums though, it’s not the apparent ‘show-stoppers’ that impress, it’s the trivia, the knick-knacks and the oddities that really draw the eye. More importantly, it’s the fact that everything remains exactly where and how it was placed – to enter the Soane museum is to become a ghost from the future, a trespasser in the past.
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