My first acquaintance with John Soane's Museum in London was when I read a short story about it as a child. The story was one by Dutch author Godfried Bomans and was called 'The most hideous museum in the world'. No prizes for guessing what he thought of it! Bomans made it clear that everyone in their right mind would find this a most depressing place. Which only served to convince me that I had to go see the museum myself one day. Because that's just the way my psyche works: 'I'm perfectly capable of making up my own mind, thank-you-very-much'. Plus I had a sneaking suspicion that contrary to dear old Godfried, I would turn out to be thrilled by it. Guess who was proved right.
Stay with me as I go over the introduction bit, just in case you hadn't heard of the place yet. I'll try to keep it short and sweet (no heinous laughter there Mr. Crisp - I'm warning you!).
Of humble beginnings, Sir John Soane (1753-1837) lived to become a distinguished architect of the neoclassical style. Apart from his professional works, his own home became a bit of a project for him as well. He ended up demolishing and rebuilding three houses in succession at Lincoln's Inn Fields, numbers 12 through 14. We can only conclude Mrs. Soane was a very patient woman.
Although Soane designed his property as a home for himself and (initially) his family, he also used it as a backdrop for his many collections of antiquities and works of art. You'll find that 'many' is the key word here. As he was keen to preserve his possessions in situ and was long estranged from his one surviving son, he determined to establish the house as a museum, which was to be kept in its original state as much as possible.
Now where to start in describing this most idiosyncratic of homes? Soane's collection is almost the sort of treasure trove you'd expect to find in an Indiana Jones film. Past the trap door, after the ball of death and the corridor of poisoned arrows. But perhaps the place is best described as the home of the eccentric elderly relative children always get sent to in (my kind of) children's books. Because it really still is a home. It just happens to be one with surprises around every corner.
The first rooms you encounter are still quite normal looking - apart from some delightful quirks - and more or less in keeping with what you'd expect from a well-to-do family of the Regency age. But then all of a sudden the collection takes over. With full force. Interlocking rooms with objects on almost every available surface. Pompeian bronzes, Greek and Roman friezes and reliefs, mosaics, Egyptian antiquities, but also paintings, sculptures, water colours, you name it, it's there. Soane obviously knew what he loved (regardless of whether or not it was generally considered noteworthy), and what he loved, he acquired. As it would appear - at times in bulk.
It strikes me as funny that an architect of the neoclassical style, with all its clean, simple lines, and little to no frills, filled up every open space he could find in his own home, thereby creating the busiest of schemes. So many of the rooms are packed from floor to ceiling. Which is just what Bomans' story builds on. Even though he admits that Soane had many a lovely piece, he feels they are completely lost in this mad display. In his view, Soane was a man possessed, someone who only cared for amassing more and more beautiful artefacts, to the detriment of everything else. And he wondered, would Soane have died a happy man amidst his many possessions? Was this accumulation of material goods really worth sacrificing his family's happiness for, and giving up his own peace of mind?
Er. Godfried old boy, I don't think you were being entirely fair. When it comes to Soane's family, neither of his boys would have been entitled to a mug with ‘bestest son in the world’ on it. Quite the contrary. Surviving son George sounds like he was a particularly nasty piece of work if you ask me. Soane himself was convinced that George's apalling behaviour hastened his mother's death in 1815. I think it's safe to say that the father suffered a lot more heart ache over the son than vice versa. And let's not forget that by all accounts, Soane's marriage was a happy one. What also endears him to me (shamelessly sentimental pet lover that I am) is that he greatly cared for his wife's pet dog Fanny, whose portrait can still be admired in the house. Is that consistent with the image of a man who only lived for his treasures?
Bomans' story comes to mind every time I visit John Soane's Museum. It can't be denied that Soane really did love gathering 'stuff' around him. But it doesn't feel to me as if he did it just for the sake of possession. Even now, the house and the items it holds, feel loved. Soane chose to surround himself with items that were special to him, even if not all of them would have been considered by others to be beautiful or of great value (a lot definitely are though!). I can almost picture him walking through his home, a faint smile on his face, touching or rearranging a treasured object here and there. In my opinion, he did succeed in making this a true home.
I suppose it's obvious I adore the place. I love discovering new things all the time in this crazy rabbit warren of a house with all its little architectural tricks, interior design madness and of course its wonderful objects. And the little hoarder in me can relate to this greatest of collectors. Although I personally do feel there is a limit to the number of cinerary urns a house should have. Even without a former person in there. Just a minor detail though. I love the house all the same and I'm glad I get to visit it. Soane loved opening up his house and letting others share in the enjoyment of his treasures. That doesn't sound so very miserly to me, Godfried.
How I wish I could spend the night there just once. And wander around the rooms by candlelight, without other persons about. Alright, maybe just one. There are some spots that I imagine will look particularly eerie, like the crypt with the sarcophagus of Seti I. Which does happen to be one of my favourite objects. Now imagine my delight in finding out I actually can fulfill my fantasy! Well, I can't have a sleep-over obviously. Not without offering some serious bribes. But it is possible to visit the house by candlelight - every first Tuesday of the month. I'm definitely going to do that this year. Another visit will also give me a chance to see the rooms that had hitherto been closed, but that have been carefully restored to their former glory. I can't wait.
So I’m sorry Godfried. I’m not with you on this one. Hope my comments won't make you turn in your grave. I do still read your books you know.
If you're still with me after this long tale - what do you make of John Soane’s house? Do you think he should have toned it down just a bit - or maybe a lot? Do you feel he let 'things' take over and get the better of the house and maybe even his life? Is the house, as Bomans felt, a sad relic of a lonely man's life? Or do you think it is a wonderful thing that he followed his own heart and his own tastes?
I’d love to hear your view.
John Soane's portrait was sourced from the National Portrait Gallery website. The etching of the catacomb with the sarcophagus of Seti I was taken from Wikipedia. All other photos sourced from Soane.org.