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My Love Affair with Sir John Soane

29 Jul

After my dramas with the sat-nav earlier this week, I thought I’d better stick to my home patch.  Seeing Soane’s glorious architecture in Dulwich, it felt fitting to visit another of his buildings.

When I was 16, on first walking into 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I fell in love.  And, notwithstanding many visits since, I still feel the same way.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s gems.

Sir John Soane’s Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/bearpitring.

Sir John Soane, son of a bricklayer, began his architectural career aged only 15 and quickly began to make a name for himself.  Enrolling at the Royal Academy in 1771, and winning a gold medal for his drawing in 1776, it was evident that this boy was destined for extraordinary things.  After a foray around Europe, Soane returned to London and set up his own architecture practice in 1781.  He undertook many prestigious appointments during his career, as well as being named Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and was appointed architect to the Bank of England in which post he remained until his retirement at the age of 80.

Detail in the Museum.  Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

Over a period of years, Soane purchased Numbers 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  He demolished and rebuilt the three houses in succession as his home and a setting for his antiquities and art works.  An Act of Parliament, negotiated by Soane himself, appointed a board of Trustees to uphold Soane’s aims and objectives, maintaining the house as a museum as closely as possible to the way Soane had left it.  Recently, the Museum has been working to open more and more areas for public access. Opening up the Soane is a very ambitious restoration project, restoring eight lost Soane interiors including the reinstatement of Soane’s model room (that had previously been used as the museum director’s office).

Building work at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Own photograph. 

The house is filled with Soane’s collections which are so remarkable and diverse that there is something here for everyone – Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, bronzes, gems, medals, jewellery, furniture, clocks, silvers, ceramics, tiles, curiosities, mummified cats, models, paintings, watercolours, drawings (in particular, the most amazing collection of Robert Adam drawings)…  The list is endless.  It is impossible on paper to do the collection justice.  The Soane is a veritable treasure trove of art history and you are guaranteed to notice
something new on each visit.  Even now, when I know every nook and cranny (and my stilettos know every crooked floorboard and creaking stair), the house still amazes and delights me. The building epitomises Soane’s ‘poetry of architecture’ with coloured light, cast by concealed skylights, filling the property.

Skylights in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The specially designed picture gallery houses Hogarth’s An Election and A Rake’s Progress giving me an opportunity to indulge my love of Hogarth on every visit.  Ingeniously designed moving walls conceal hidden paintings. Nearby, in one of the most densely hung sections of the house, Seti I’s sarcophagus sits in the centre of the Crypt under the Dome.

William Hogarth, The Orgy from A Rake’s Progress, 1733. Image via www.soane.org

Soane’s use of mirrors is one of the special features of the house providing wonderful reflections and enlarging and energising the space. As well as a wonderful collection, the Soane boasts some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable warders in London. They know everything about Soane and inspire you to know more.

Mirrors in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The old exhibition room at the Soane is unrecognisable now due to building work although, when finished, Soane will boast a new and enlarged gallery space.  The gallery is currently in temporary lodgings on the ground floor (the room where I used to go to process PDQ payments during my time at the Soane).  On show at the moment, Wonders of the Ancient World is a unique collection of twenty plaster reproductions of great buildings and monuments of the past including Rome’s Pantheon and Athen’s Parthenon. The intricacy and accuracy of the models is sensational. They were made by Francois Fouquet who, from 1790-1830, meticulously produced these for architects and collectors in Paris.

The majority of the models remain in pristine condition and this is the first time they have been shown in this way.  (You may spot a couple of damaged works in the exhibition such as the Arch of Hadrian, Athens.  It’s thought these models were damaged in 1940 when a landmine was dropped on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, shattering cases and models.)  Fouquet learned model-making from his father but his works are distinguished by their smaller dimensions and finer details – detail which is incredible.  Father and son left no clues as to how these models were made and their technique is still a mystery.  They must have worked the plaster when wet and then hand-finished their models when dry.  It is probable they also used some stock elements conceived through moulds.

Francois Fouquet model of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome. Image via www.soane.org.

Soane purchased these 20 models in 1833 and paid the large sum of £100 for the works. In today’s currency that is £10,136.78!  I’d say Soane got good value for his money.

The Soane Fouquet models are a very rare survival and when restoration finishes in 2014, these will be back on permanent display.

The amazing domed area. Image via www.archimage.co.uk.

Although this is a lovely exhibition, I’d implore you to visit the Soane anytime, regardless of what they have on show.  There is no entrance charge so even if you only have ten minutes to spare, pop in to explore a new part of the house and get lost in Soane’s world.

Image via www.flickr.com

Wonders of the Ancient World: Francois Fouquet’s Model Masterpieces is at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 24th September 2011, www.soane.org.

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