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Sir John Soane's Museum

My brother strongly recommended this eccentric museum decades ago and last year(ish) Griff Rees-Jones made a TV programme about it. At last, on December 1, we walked round to the railings in front of this rather special-looking gentleman's city abode where a notice told us to wait. Timing was good (no queue) as a member of staff ushered us in and our entirely free journey began into the mind and collection of Sir John Soane, architect, friend of J.M.W. Turner and inveterate collector and snapper up of barely-considered trifles.

Inside Sir John Soane's Museum, image ©:

This is a fairly modest-sized house (although it borrows rooms from it neighbour, I think), not a palace, so it really shouldn't take long to stroll round. Except that almost every inch is crammed with mouldings, architectural features, sculpture and art from the 18th and 19th centuries and back through antiquity. Some of the lighting in 'the crypt' is so low that you sense the almost life-size statuary rather than see them as they stand guard close to a painted stone sarcophagus from ancient Egypt. Everywhere there are lanterns and squints to allow daylight down into galleries, mezzanines and tiny dark corners. And then there is the famous gallery room where the walls covered with paintings open up like barn doors to show painting on the inside, and then, magically, they open again to finally reveal a hidden daylit space and the odd Turner or Canaletto. Oh yes, and there are the complete original oil paintings of Hogarth's 'The Election' and 'The Rake's Progress' which that artist created to promote sales of his engravings. All astonishingly restored and exhibited by the staff in such a low-key manner.

This museum is a Chinese cabinet of wonders, a memorial to a magpie-like collector who pocketed a piece of red-painted plaster while visiting the ruins of Pompei and later had the colour made up for his dining room walls. Each room is labelled high up on each wall with the points of the compass to assist the visitor (and presumably the original owner?) in orientating themselves around the house. Never a terribly successful architect, this factor may be the key to Soane staying in the same place, surrounded by his ever-growing collection, for so many years. In the small courtyard round which the house is built is the ultimate dilletante conceit: a vertical structure composed of fragments of pillasters, pinnacles and obelisks from all over the world. His long-suffering wife waited until he was away on one of his trips abroad before she held a dance in their large upstairs front apartment, her husband not holding with such things.

--Borin Van Loon, Dec 2007

Our Chairman visited Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, and sent us this article.

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