Spring is in the air, and it felt like a perfect time to revisit the Historic Houses series. This tends to be the time of year us Brits start to make plans, as the weather gets (generally) better and the days are now longer again. Years ago I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and a friend’s recent visit reminded me of what a wonderful place it is. So, it seemed like the perfect pick for the next of the series!

The exterior of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

History of the House

Although this section is for the history of the house, it is pertinent to start with the history of the man himself, Sir John Soane. John was an Englishman who was born in 1753 to inauspicious beginnings. His father was either a builder or a bricklayer and he died when John was 14, leaving the family’s future uncertain. John had been lucky enough to be educated up to this point in a private school in Reading, but after his father’s death the family moved to Chertsey in Surrey to live with his older brother who could care for them, he being 26 years old.

This move proved to change the course of John’s life. His brother decided the younger boy needed to start the world of work, and he organised for John to train as an architect under George Dance the Younger, an architect who had studied for six years in Rome and came from a family of architects. Within the decade, John was proving to be an excellent student. He was awarded two medals by the Royal Academy for some of his drawings, received a travelling scholarship, and exhibited at the Royal Academy. His first book was published in 1778, the same year he used his scholarship to commence his Grand Tour to Rome.

John Soane in 1776, two years before taking his Grand tour. By Christopher William Hunneman. 

For John, Rome was the pinnacle of architectural design. He relished in the opportunity to study the Ancient Roman ruins and buildings, and he also took the chance to make some important contacts. One of these was Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, who asked John to travel with him to Naples. During this trip, John met numerous important people who would later commission him.

John returned to England two years after he left and in a fair amount of debt. John travelled to see his friend, the 4th Earl of Bristol, to see if he could work on the Earl’s new house in Suffolk, but the Earl sent him to Ireland instead to work on Downhill House. Once again, though, this fell through as the pair disagreed on the plans. He spent the next two years undertaking minor commissions from his friends as each of his big planned projects fell through. Finally, in 1783, he received his first country house, and he designed Letton Hall in Norfolk for the Gurdon family. From then on, John’s career took off.

A 19th-century print of Soane’s newly designed Bank of England. WikiCommons.

Much of John’s work was focused on designing and extending large houses owned by the wealthy and elite members of society, but in 1788 he became architect and surveyor to the Bank of England, a job he held for 45 years. The appointment was largely made through the influence of another friend he had met during his Grand Tour, the Prime Minister William Pitt. Across the course of his time there, he virtually rebuilt the entire bank. By the time John died in January 1837, he had thoroughly left his mark on British architecture.

So, what of his house? John Soane bought the house, Number 13 of Lincoln Inn’s Fields in London, in 1806, and then spent various points over the next six years rebuilding it. He intended the building to act both as a home but primarily a museum. Over his lifetime, John had collected an incredible amount of items. At the time of his death he had over 7,700 books and 30,000 architectural drawings, along with a plethora of statues and antiques. He wanted somewhere to display all of his collections but he was also aware of wanting to preserve the incredible items he had gathered for the future.

The sarcophagus of Seti I at Sir John Soane’s Museum, as shown in the Illustrated London News, 1864, and an aerial view of it today.

John had already bought Number 12 and renovated it, and two decades later he also bought Number 14. In these buildings he constructed a drawing office and picture gallery but the real gem of the building was the main room of the house which spanned several floors and was topped with a glorious dome. In this room, John crammed in as many of his statues and antiques as he could fit. The crowning glory of his room was the Sarcophagus of Seti I, a tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh over 3,000 years old which was discovered in 1817. John bought the sarcophagus for a staggering £2,000 and placed it in the lowest floor of this room which became known as the Sepulchral Chamber. John celebrated the acquisition by hosting a three-day party in the house which entertained nearly 900 people.

Other objects that John displayed included many pieces from antiquity, bought during a boom in trade in these objects in the West. This included bronzes, urns, mosaics, vases, busts and pieces of sculpture. John also had an interest in the art of the East, and he obtained Chinese ceramics and Indian furniture. John of course had a plethora of pieces of art in his collection, and as an architect he designed an ingenious way of storing and displaying them all. His Picture Gallery had walls made of large, moveable pieces of panelling which meant he could store three times as many paintings as the space would normally accommodate.

A view of the Picture Room – you can see the hinges of the wooden panels which open up to reveal more paintings. Sir John Soane’s Museum.

John’s house is positively brimming with historic items, all on display in a way that is rarely seen today. John was determined that after his death his legacy would be preserved – particularly as he greatly disliked his son and heir who had gathered himself a great debt and married a woman whom his father disapproved of. John did not want his collection going to his son and being sold off, and so he used all of his political connections to attempt to disinherit his son.

Various views from the internal chamber of the Museum. One, two, three.

In 1833, John Soane obtained an Act of Parliament to bequeath his house and all the items within to the British Nation upon his death, with the stipulation that it be made into a museum of architecture managed by a board of trustees. He also asked that the house be preserved as close as possible as it was at the time of his death. This was followed through, and it has been a museum since his death a few years later. Following in John’s footsteps, it is also a national centre for the study of architecture.

The museum underwent significant restoration work between 1988 and 2005, with the aim to restore the private rooms of the house back to their original decoration and move back items which had been moved. Another phase of restoration took place from 2011 to 2016 which cost £7 million and included the installation of a lift to provide disabled access for the first time, the creation of a shop, new conservation studios, and the restoration of John’s private apartments. The size of the house and the amount of objects crammed in means that even today only 90 people can enter the house at a time. Despite this limitation, over 100,000 people visit it a year.

Visiting the House

Nb: all information is correct at time of writing, but always check the website: https://www.soane.org/

So, if your interest has been piqued, then how do you visit Sir John Soane’s Museum? The museum is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm and they also open on Bank Holiday Mondays. Amazingly, entrance to the house is free and you do not need to pre-book. The museum also now offers daily tours of the Private Apartments on the second floor which were not previously open to the public.

Due to the nature of the building, there is not space for a café so there is no food and drink facilities. There is, however, a nice little shop and the location of the museum in central London means there are plenty of places to eat within the nearby streets. There is also a lovely park opposite the museum which is nice to visit on a sunny day.

Some of the other rooms at Sir John Soane’s Museum: the Library-Dining Room, the Monk’s Parlour and the Breakfast Room.

I can highly recommend a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum. It is such a unique experience packed full of artefacts and history. Everyone who works there is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and I remember having lots of interesting conversations with the room supervisors during my visit. The novelty of the picture gallery moving around can make paintings exciting for even the biggest art-haters, and the view of the central room filled to the brim with items from across the world never leaves you. And when it is free, why ever would you not visit?

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