Antiquities and Idiosyncrasies in 18th-Century Britain

The exterior of Sir John Soane's Museum (all images courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, via Flickr)
The exterior of Sir John Soane’s Museum (all images courtesy the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum unless otherwise noted, via Flickr)

The stately facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum sits on the northwest side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a square, grassy park filled with young Londoners throwing frisbees, drinking beer, and flirting. The interior of the museum, at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is a strikingly different environment, a purposeful anachronism to the outside world: vases, statues, and other fragments of antiquities hung so close together that they create walls of architectural amalgamation; a gallery where paintings hide behind removable walls; a Gothic “monk’s cell”; fragments of a medieval castle; experimental Neoclassical architectural design. A unique collection of objects, Sir John Soane’s Museum is a place that reveals its namesake’s tastes and obsessions. Like the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, it was designed and arranged by its owner to outline specific aesthetic criteria.

The Monk's Parlor (click to enlarge)
The Monk’s Parlor (click to enlarge)

Sir John Soane was born in 1753, and his rise to wealth and knighthood was a rare example of 18th-century class mobility. The son of a bricklayer, young Soane demonstrated clear academic intelligence and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools to train as an architect. His early career was mostly unremarkable, but he maintained a steady business of small contracts, and later more substantial projects updating and designing country estates. By 1788, Soane’s career had taken off, and he won the commission to design the Bank of England. In 1790, Soane’s wife, Eliza Smith, inherited a substantial sum of money, and a few years later he began to passionately collect art and antiquities.

Both Soane’s Neoclassical architectural style and his passion for antiquities were likely inspired by a trip he made as a young man to Italy: a “grand tour,” the usual right-of-passage for upper-class English youth. Soane was too poor to make purchases during his trip, but many of the pieces in his house likely reflect this initial inspiration.

Entering off the street, up the stairs, and through the front hall, visitors first encounter the Library and Dining Room. With its walls painted a deep red, the room looks how one might imagine a British interior of the period to look, except for some notable differences: close to the ceiling, small shelves support Etruscan vases of various sizes; convex mirrors occupy the corners of the room, creating a strange fun-house effect. The relationship between straight line and curve is starkly highlighted: the books have square corners, while the vases and mirrors are perfectly rounded.

The Library and Dining Room is adjacent to the domed Breakfast Parlor, a space that exemplifies Soane’s unique architectural style. The small room’s domed ceiling hangs lower than its outer walls. The space is lit with an otherworldly yellow light, filtered from skylights hidden above the outer edges of the interior dome — an experimental touch added to the more traditionally Neoclassical ceiling.

The Dining Room (courtesy Martin Charles) (click to enlarge)
The Dining Room (courtesy Martin Charles) (click to enlarge)

The Library and Dining Room and the Breakfast Parlor are beautiful introductions to Soane’s architectural and decorative style, but the most striking rooms in the house are in the back, constructed by him specifically to house his collection. During Soane’s lifetime he opened his house to visitors and students; the current museum curators have attempted to preserve the arrangement of objects exactly as it was when Soane died in 1837. A large part of experiencing the museum is trying to understand why he arranged his collection in this particular way.

One of the spaces built for the collection is “The Dome,” aptly named for a circular skylight at the apex of its ceiling. The Dome may be the most visually arresting place in the house. Its walls are lined with antiquities — architectural fragments, busts, and reliefs. The room contains both original marble and plaster casts, including a full-size replica of the Apollo Belvedere. (Evidently, Soane did not discriminate between reproductions and originals, being more interested in the form of pieces than their lineage.) The works are hung or placed so close together that the space feels not like a room with objects in it, but rather like a space whose very shape is created by the objects within. As in the rest of the house, there are no wall texts or labels. While the arrangement is neither chronological nor obviously thematic, Soane believed it to be educational, and his architectural pupils meticulously sketched his installations.

The Dome
The Dome

Below The Dome lies the Egyptian sarcophagus of Seti I (c. 1279 BCE), a celebrated acquisition when Soane purchased it in 1824. Also on the lower floor is a habitat for a fictional monk named Padre Giovanni, an example of Soane’s whimsical eccentricity. The Monk’s Parlor is a dark room filled with Gothic pieces, and it overlooks the Monk’s Yard, composed of parts of the medieval Palace of Westminster, here arranged by Soane to appear as a medieval monastery.

Soane also collected paintings, exhibited in the Picture Room, another construction in the back of the house. Passing through the cornucopia of antiquities, one enters a small square space with walls of paintings hung one above the other, salon style. These walls fold outward on hinges, revealing that the backs of the original walls are also hung with paintings, and that there is yet another facade of works behind the first wall. This density of hanging in such a tight space makes for an incredibly overwhelming visual experience. Some notable works emerge: the eight paintings of A Rake’s Progress, the story of a young man’s descent into dissolution, by William Hogarth in 1773; the four paintings of Hogarth’s Election series, from 1754–55, which parody political tactics and procedures; J.M.W. Turner’s Kirkstall Abbey, a watercolor from 1797; Antoine Watteau’s oil painting Les Noces, from 1713–15.

The Picture Room (courtesy Ralph Hodgson)
The Picture Room in 2012 (courtesy Ralph Hodgson)

The objects in Soane’s collection must have appeared exotic and romantic to his contemporaries. Late 18th- and early 19th-century London was much like the society Dickens would memorialize some 50 years later. It had little in common with the Greeks, Romans, and Ancient Egyptians — except, of course, that Britain was an empire, and at the time nearing the height of its powers.

Surrounded by antiquities from various fallen empires, one wonders if the parallel between the British state and earlier civilizations had a particular resonance for Soane. The collection elicits an unavoidable contemplation of the rise and fall of civilizations. Perhaps Soane and his contemporaries were searching not just for exotic mirrors of their plentitude, but also for clues of their eventual downfall.

Soane’s curatorial choices, however, intentionally offer few obvious clues about the origins of his objects; the intent seems to be solely contemplation of form. Most contemporary viewers are accustomed to seeing antiquities in a didactic setting, constantly made aware of their historical context. Soane’s Museum offers no such background; viewers are left alone with the beauty of the objects.

Simple notions of beauty can be problematic for lovers of modern and contemporary art, yet there’s no denying, while observing Soane’s collection, that many classical antiquities contain an arrangement of curve and corner and line that’s pleasing to the human eye in a completely visceral way. Standing within The Dome, one sees that the gently sloped line of a vase is very much like the curve of a fellow museumgoer’s head, and that the intricate petals of a carved flower seem as much natural parts of a whole as fingers on a hand. As anyone who has ever watched a video about fractals knows, shapes repeat throughout the natural world. Perhaps the enduring appeal of classical forms is that they mimic this, mirroring and heightening the symmetry that already exists.

Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London) is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am–5 pm.

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