Sunday, April 29, 2012

John Soane's Museum on Lincoln's Inn Fields

Photo: The Soane Museum is currently under renovation. No indoor photography. CT 2012

Between 1792 and 1824, the great neo-classical architect Sir John Soane rebuilt a series of three interlocking houses on Lincoln's Inn Fields, the largest public square in London.

This became a show home for himself, his family, and his huge art collection. Soane was the designer of the Bank of England, one wall of which survives in the Bank Museum. Another of his creations was Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone Road (now gone). He also designed churches in Portland Street, Bethnal Green and elsewhere.

A friend of the romantic landscape painter JMW Turner, Soane used "Turner yellow" paint and draperies in his gorgeously appointed second floor parlour. This lovely room is lit by recessed skylights as well as front windows that stand away from the main house wall in their own alcoves. The furnishings reflect the fashion of the times, but also include two leather armchairs with matching footstools in a memorable dark purple -- and no, I do not mean the relatively common leather chair colour, burgundy.

The museum area stretches across the back of the three attached houses and soars from the basement through all three storeys. Although Soane's art collection is wildly eclectic, it is beautifully arranged in this purpose-built space. A few examples include a collection of Peruvian pots, several pieces of fifteenth-century Flemish stained glass, a black-skinned statue of Artemis of Ephesus, and two pairs of eagles from the demolished Carlton House, once the London home of the Prince.

A unique piece is a statue of Apollo Belvedere, mounted on a pedestal which contains a recessed desk that can be pulled out. At this desk, Soane worked, using his vantage point to glance from time to time at his apprentices, as they beavered away in a glass-fronted work room on the floor above.

According to the docent, Soane, like many powerful men of his day, was a deist and a Mason, and much of the collection contains references to Masonic symbolism. The ancient Egyptian marble sarcophagus and the statue of Asclepius fall into this category. He is also believed to have financially supported abolition of slavery, though he did not vocally espouse it, most likely because it would have threatened his position as Architect and Surveyor of the Bank.

At the time Soane displayed his treasures for the public to see, the only other museum in London was the British Museum. Soane wanted to share the enjoyment of his collection with those who wanted to see them; visitors were charged no fee, and indeed, the museum is still free.

One touch I particularly enjoyed while visiting was a modern innovation: the strategic placement of teazels on the velvet chairs all over the house. This would definitely discourage visitors from being tempted to sit on the delicate antique furniture.

Though part of Sir John Soane's Museum is under restoration, it remains open to visitors. Located near Holborn Underground Station in central London, this small museum is decidedly worth seeing.

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