Sir John Soane was one of the few self-made gentlemen in England during the Georgian and Regency periods. He began as a bricklayer in his father’s business but his talent for architectural drawing caught the eye of someone in the position to foster his career. He rose quickly once given the opportunity to do so and is responsible for the design of several public buildings in London. His house is now a T-shape, with the narrow part at the front, widening into a space the width of three town houses at the back. We were not allowed to take photos inside which was both a pity and a blessing. Sometimes, when there is so much to see, you miss part of the experience when you are busy with a camera. However, even having bought the “Complete Description” of the collection, I wish I’d been able to photograph some of the more obscure items of particular interest to me.
The architecture of the house itself shows many innovations. Soane attempted to install a subterranean heating system in the style of the Ancient Romans, which apparently never quite worked. He also had a dressing room off his study, and a pump for water at his toilet stand–something unheard-of at that time. In his study, there was built-in furniture, including a desk, another innovation.
The house was built around his collection, with a deep welled atrium plunging through the middle of the house. At its base on the basement level is an alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus which Sir John bought from Belzoni when the British Museum couldn’t find the exorbitant price Belzoni demanded for it. On the ground floor surrounding the atrium well is a colonnade with a higgledy piggledy collection of statues and busts and urns and pieces of frieze from Ancient Rome. Sunlight streams through the glass dome above.
One room is devoted to part of Sir John’s art collection, which includes fine Canalettos. The room is not terribly large, but the complete Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress can be viewed there because Sir John put hinges on the back wall of the room, so it opens out like the leaves of a book to reveal yet another hinged wall behind it. Beyond that, is another display of Ancient Roman sculpture and a view down into the gothic parody of a Monk’s chamber. An ingenious invention and a delightful surprise to visitors.
There’s so much more to this museum–the upstairs shrine to Sir John’s wife, for instance, and portraits of his sons, both of whom were estranged from Sir John after his beloved wife’s death. A sad story, indeed. Yet it was because of this estrangement that instead of being passed on to his children, this house, in its entirety, including an extensive library and archive of architectural designs and books, was given to the nation and to students of architecture everywhere.
In THE WIFE’S TALE, my heroine’s husband Richard, Lord Nash, is a keen collector of Ancient Roman artefacts. Immersing myself in Sir John Soane’s world helped me visualise the kind of collection my Lord Nash would have owned.