There is undoubtedly a tri-annual exodus of students from Durham at the end of each term. Although this results in a profoundly sudden and mass emptying of Durham, it does allow for students to go to galleries and other creative institutions outside of the NorthEast. When home from university, I endeavour to visit a new gallery each time. The museum I went to for the first time this Christmas was Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn, London.
Named after one of the greatest ever British architects, Sir John Soane’s Museum is a time capsule of how he lived at the time of his death in 1837. The extraordinary triple-width central-London townhouse displays his vast collection of antiquities, furniture, sculptures, architectural models, and paintings; it truly is a collection of oddities and curiosities.
Well-known for his signature Neo-classical architectural design, Soane is most famous for designing The Bank of England building and Dulwich Picture Gallery amongst many others. As the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in London from 1806 to 1837, Soane was immersed into the upper-class creative scene of the time which resulted in him being able to fund trips and excursions to acquire new items. His well-travelled lifestyle is evident because, as you walk around, the space is somewhat sensorially overwhelming and at times claustrophobic because of the number of artefacts stuffed into the space.
Soane bought the first of the three adjacent properties in 1792, followed by the second in 1806 and the final property in 1823. After buying the first of the three properties, he spent the remaining span of his life redeveloping, refurbishing, and reformatting the maze-like nest of chambers, gallery spaces, drawing rooms, and libraries that formed his once home. The museum’s key aim, of which they have clearly succeeded in doing so, is to preserve this unique heritage collection for future generations, not only as a historically and culturally educational tool, but also as an institution for public enjoyment and interest.
Unsurprisingly, the architectural ingenuity of the Sir John Soane Museum is marvellous and is a true time-warp of styles, sizes, and décor. As you enter through the door of the grand façade, you are immersed into the opulent world of the regency lifestyle. Entertaining rooms including a luxurious library and a dining room provide a stark contrast to the back rooms and lower levels which are filled with his treasures. The contrast between the different spaces in the house is one of the museum’s most characteristic features and adds to the unique experience of the museum.
Another interesting feature of the museum is Soane’s distinctive use of light. His choices in relation to light apply to his architectural designs, paintings, and physical spaces. Furthermore, as he extensively redeveloped the three houses himself over a long period, what we see today is the culmination of how he wanted it to be. One of the most scintillating areas of the museum for me was the breakfast room in which a light, shallow dome, which Soane preferred to call a canopy, stretches across the ceiling of the rectangular room, and is illuminated by an octagonal skylight filled with panels of coloured glass. In addition, there is also mirrored glass around the canopy, transforming the space into an optical device. The sense of architectural playfulness is certainly something Soane liked to adhere to.
However, my favourite bit of the whole museum is The Picture Room which truly is the jewel of the museum’s crown. The Picture Room contains Sir John Soane’s most treasured works of art, including masterpieces by Hogarth, Canaletto, and Turner. The most captivating part of this room is the moving picture planes which are hinged walls, allowing the small 13-by-12-foot room to house 118 paintings, a collection large enough for a room three times its size. When the picture planes are opened, it allows the compact space to be transformed into a larger multi-level space which is awe inspiring.
Amidst the thousands of artefacts and paintings, my favourite object was a big bronze bust in the Sepulchral Chamber (pictured). Described in the collection catalogue as a “a tour de force of bronze casting”, the artist of this bronze sculpture is unknown but is undoubtedly one of the most impressive things in the museum. Suspected to be Italian from the 17th century, the subject matter is up for debate. The collection catalogue labels it as Pluto but Soane himself labelled it as Jupiter. This statue’s origin is also uncertain as it is not mentioned in either of Soane’s two first published descriptions of the house in 1830 and 1832, nor does it appear in any of the myriad views of the house from that time or earlier. The mystery and uncertainty surrounding this bust’s subjective and artistic origins is perhaps why I find it so captivating.
All in all, Sir John Soane’s Museum is an absolute must-visit for any lovers of art, classical antiquity, or objects of curiosity. The eclectic collection of trinkets and artefacts come together to form a spectacular viewing experience for the visitor. I recommend anyone to visit when they can and to support independent museums in this current climate.
Illustration by Victoria Cheng