When you step into one of London’s iconic red telephone boxes, you’re entering the architecture of a tomb. The 1920s design by Giles Gilbert Scott is said to have been inspired by a 19th-century memorial monument to the wife of famed architect Sir John Soane. On November 23, to mark 200 years since the death of Eliza Soane, staff from the Sir John Soane’s Museum placed a wreath at her domed grave.
Her tomb, which became the family vault, was raised over her grave in Old St Pancras churchyard in 1816, and inspired the Giles Gilbert Scott telephone kiosk. Scott knew the tomb well as a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum for 35 years, and his 1920s creation is now an endlessly imitated landmark in British design.
Gillian Darley affirmed in John Soane: An Accidental Romantic that Scott “became a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum in 1925, the year in which his design was selected, suggesting that the link was more than mere coincidence.”
Currently, some images of the tomb and other artifacts of death from the Soanes’s lives are on view at Death and Memory: Soane and the Architecture of Legacy at Sir John Soane’s Museum, housed in his elaborate former home that he designed. Soane was stricken by Eliza’s death on November 22, 1815, never coming out of his deep grief. He kept a model of the tomb he designed for her near his dining table, and long preserved their shared bedroom as a sort of shrine.
He also never forgave his son George, whom he blamed for Eliza’s death. George wasn’t such a fan of father Soane’s neoclassical architecture, which formed London buildings like the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, and he wrote two scathing, anonymous articles against his work. When George was identified as the author and Eliza read his words, she reportedly said, “he has given me my death blow — I shall never hold up my head again.”
John Soane agreed, and kept the two articles framed on his wall with the macabre label: “Death blows given by George Soane 10th & 24th Sept. 1815.” In 1837, when John Soane himself died, he was buried alongside the bones of Eliza, and almost a century later the curious dome of their shared tomb still haunts the city through the enduring K2 telephone box.
Death and Memory: Soane and the Architecture of Legacy continues at Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London) through March 26, 2016.