Off the tourist track: The Sir John Soanes Museum

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Despite the fact that the pace at work is edging towards relentless, and the fact that I'm spending two hours every Saturday in driving lessons (more about that another time), I did manage to squeeze in a visit to a small but lovely museum in the Holborn area this Saturday. Saturday was lovely and sunny and quite warm, and I got to spend an agreeable amount of it sitting in trains traveling to and from my lesson (which went quite well except for one frustrating dash through a roundabout, which we shall not speak about again).  It's a lovely thing, I find, to sit in a train on a sunny day (a real train, mind you, not a tube train, where it is understandably difficult to appreciate sunniness) with just enough time to have a bash at the crossword, but not enough to get bored or restless.  And if that train happens to deliver you across a sparkling Thames River, and you get a quick glimpse of Big Ben as you look up from 19 Down before you glide into Charing Cross station, and if you then get to wander through the West End and find your way to Lincoln's Inn Fields and Sir John Soane's Museum... well, that's a damned fine way to spend a bit of your Saturday afternoon, I'd say.

Lincoln's Inn Fields The Lincoln's Inn Fields, across from the museum.  It's a remarkably quiet spot that's just a block away from a busy street and probably worthy of a short blog post all its own, considering it has a Coronation Tree (planted in 1953), a memorial to the Royal Canadian Air Force, a picturesque drinking fountain, and a history of homeless occupation in the 1980s, among, I'm sure, a few other diversions.  I tell you, London is just full of this kind of thing.

Sir John Soane's Museum is, unsurprisingly, a museum housed in the former home of the 18th century architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837).  The house itself was designed by Soane, and is interesting in itself, having been established as a public museum by an Act of Parliament a few years before the man's death.  However, the contents of the house are the real treat because Soane positively crammed the place with his collections of artwork, architectural models, classical sculpture, salvaged decorative ornaments from buildings, antiquities, and one perfectly excellent ancient Egyptian sarcophagus (more about which later).

The house is small-ish, and, as I mentioned, rather overstuffed with historically significant and fragile things, and there is no admission charge, which is probably why there was a queue to get in.  I did hesitate a bit about standing in the queue, but then realised if I bailed out I'd have nothing to blog about so I persevered.  There was a docent at the head of the queue letting small groups of people in as previous visitors were leaving.  Large bags had to be checked at the door (and by "checked"  mean "placed in the floor in the entrance hall with a small numbered tag attached to them").  Smaller items had to be put into plastic bags and carried in the arms.  You were not allowed to carry your coat.  Mobile phones had to be switched off.  And no cameras were permitted.  It all seemed a bit draconian, but it's their house, so they get to make the rules.  And as we will see later on, they have good reason to be twitchy about things.

The Library and Dining Room are the first set of rooms you enter, and they are likely the most conventional part of the house.  Properly panelled and painted and arrayed with 7,000 leather-bound volumes in glassed-in shelves, they are the kind of rooms you'd expect to see in a good costume drama.

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The Library and Dining Room.  No, I did NOT take any pictures.  Instead, I paid £2 for the small printed guide to the house, and then scanned the pics in that, so that you'd have a bit of a clue what I'm banging on about.  That's why the quality of some of these pictures is so mediocre.

I say these were the most conventional rooms, because at the back of the house you come into the Collonade and Dome, where things depart markedly from normal domesticity.  Here's where the bulk of the ornaments and statuary are kept, in what would have been (for the time) quite well-lit conditions.  Soane is known for his use of skylights in architecture and is noted for his design of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which was the first purpose-built public art gallery in the country and introduced the use of skylights and interconnected display rooms that we come to expect in galleries today.  Soane was the one who did that first!  (Aside: The Dulwich Picture Gallery is right across from Dulwich Park, where I often go running.  They recently finished an exhibition of Group of Seven paintings that was hugely popular, even though it was a bit weird to listen to Londoners "discovering" the Group of Seven for the first time, as if they were new and exotic.)

In Soane's house, the Collonade and Dome rooms still feel a bit dark - the house doesn't employ a lot of artificial light, I suppose to give visitors an idea of what it would really have been like in Soane's time.  But the skylights add oodles more light than would have been possible from conventional windows, especially considering the house is completely hemmed in on two sides.

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A fuzzy, scanned glimpse of what the Collonade looks like, filled with statuary, antiquities and countless bits and bobs.  You can see what I mean about the light. And the somewhat OTT level of decorative excess.  Imagine stumbling through here in the middle of the night when you're just on the way to the bathroom... (CRASH! "Damn! What was that?  Oh drat, the Ephesian Diana... not again!")

The famous Picture Room is also on the ground floor.  It's a small room, but in it are hung more than one hundred paintings, including three by Canaletto and the famous "Rake's Progress" by Hogarth.  This density of art is accomplished in the small space partly by hanging all the way up the tall walls, but also with clever panels built into the walls. What look like ordinary walls are, in fact, large hinged panels that reveal more paintings on the walls behind them, and have paintings mounted on their reverse sides.  One half of the room even has a double-stacked set of these panels, the last of which opens to reveal a view through to another room, and a lovely if slightly titillating statue of a nymph (hidden from modest eyes by the clever panels).

It's in the basement, though, that I found my favourite part of John Soane's house.  The lower level is actually referred to as the Crypt, and was designed by Soanes to have an atmosphere reminiscent of Roman burial chambers or catacombs.  It's quite excellent, and there were even a few candles burning in some of the smaller anterooms, which gave a lovely, eerie tone to the place.  The museum actually opens one evening each month when they light the house entirely by candlelight.  Apparently people start queuing at 5pm to get in.

The best bit in the crypt is undoubtedly the massive ancient Egyptian sarcophagus displayed under a Victorian-era glass cover.  Housed in a room engagingly called The Sepulchral Chamber, the sarcophagus is thought to be that of the Pharaoh Seti I (1303-1290 BC) and may be one of the most important Egyptian antiquities ever discovered.  Soane bought it in 1824 (just a few years after hieroglyphs were first deciphered) from a former theatrical strongman turned Egyptologist who unearthed it in the Valley of Kings.  It was originally offered to the British Museum, but they balked at the £2,000 price tag, and so it sits in Soane's basement.

It's a magnificent thing.  Carved out of a solid piece of Egyptian alabaster, it's covered with engraved hieroglyphs inside and out.  Time and London's dodgy air quality have turned the stone a yellowish shade, and the blue paint that once highlighted the engravings is long gone. But it's still incredible to see.  Apparently Soane was so taken with it when he first acquired it that he held three nights of parties and hired 300 oil lamps to light the house while a thousand people visited.  The docent who was with the sarcophagus was particularly keen and talked endlessly about the piece and translated a few of the hieroglyphs and revealed that for special events burning candles would have been placed inside the sarcophagus, making the whole thing glow a rosy pink colour.  He even had a little flashlight that he held up to the glass and indeed you could see the light through the wall of the sarcophagus.  He was great, that guy.

The sarcophagus of Seti I in the Sepulchral Chamber, as shown in the 'Illustrated London News, 1864

Not so great was the next Soane Museum guardian I encountered, and it's because of him that I have one bone to pick with the good folks at the Sir John Soanes Museum.  I turned off the ringer of my phone when I entered the house, but was using it to take a few notes for the blog, as is my habit.  Most of the docents like Mr. Sarcophagus didn't bat an eye at this, but this one guy asked me to turn the phone off.  When I pointed out that I was just taking notes, he said that didn't matter.  Phones had to be off.  "That's why we asked you to turn them off at the door."  I resorted to scribbling notes in my £2 printed guide, but I honestly can't see what harm I was doing to the house, the other visitors, or the cranky docent by quietly tapping out a few notes. It honestly put me off for a bit, until something much more exciting happened.

I was in a side room of the Crypt called the Monk's Parlour when the sarcophagus guy came over and shooed us all out to close the room.  I overheard someone say there had been "an accident in the Picture Room" just above the room I'd been in, so I hung about trying to figure out what had happened.  It's worth saying here that the house is old, and the people that run it are fighting a constant battle against time to keep it in one piece.  I noted with sadness that Soane's famous skylights are covered one the outside with a layer of cheap corrugated plastic through which lengths of sticky tape could clearly be seen holding things together.  And the parquet flooring in parts of the Crypt has dried up so much that the individual pieces of wood in the pattern are no longer stuck down, giving one the impression of walking on a carefully laid out pattern of Jenga blocks.  On Saturday, the poor people at the Soane's Museum lost another battle.

As near as I can tell a bit of the orante carved ceiling in Picture Room simply gave up the ghost and fell to the floor.  I can't say this for certain, but there was a fair bit of quiet rushing about, and a dustpan and brush were fetched, and museum staff were overheard muttering things like "I heard a cracking noise" and "Falling apart. The house is falling apart." The room was closed off, and a big chunk of plastic sheeting was laid out on the floor with a grey blanket on top of it.  The facade next door to the house is currently obscured with scaffolding, and there was further muttering from museum people about the building work next door causing vibrations.  All in all it was a dramatic, if hushed event.  As I was leaving the Picture Room was closed until further notice, so I suppose I should be grateful I got to see things at all.  And I can understand why they are touchy about people carrying things through the house, if it's all that fragile.  I was glad I'd coughed up £2 to the effort when I bought my little guide. (But honestly, I still don't understand what hazard my iPhone posed in the whole scenario.)

The John Soanes Museum facade, at number 13 Lincoln's Inn Field.  With scaffolding shrouding number 12, which is also part of the house, and is undergoing a major restoration.

And that was my visit to the Sir John Soane's Museum.  It certainly worth an hour or two of your time if you're looking for a diversion and are in the area.  (Holborn Tube, Central Line, in case anyone is planning a visit.)  Look out for the tomb for poor Fanny, the devoted lapdog of Mrs. Soane.  And the sarcophagus, of course.  And a word to the wise: you might want to think about bringing a hard hat if you're planning on visiting the Picture Room.  

1 Comment:

Unknown said...

That museum is one of Wes's faves, so he took me there last time we were in London. Nothing so dramatic happened to us, but it was very interesting and well worth an hour or two. Nice park in front too. rh

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