Step inside the elegance of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields to enjoy a unique glimpse into the life of English neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. A dark, narrow and somewhat unprepossessing hallway leads to a series of rooms stuffed, crammed and wedged with a capricious and eclectic collection of treasures, objets, and oddments which Soane accumulated on his travels. At Soane’s explicit request, the house and its contents were secured for the nation, rather than passing to his reprobate son, by an act of parliament. The house was to remain unchanged, exactly as he left it, and so the visitor today sees everything just as it was in Soane’s day.
The son of a bricklayer, Soane designed the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and parts of the Houses of Parliament (later torn down). He was also professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. He purchased No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792, later acquiring Nos. 13 and 14, and he then set about converting and remodelling the properties, partly to experiment with architectural ideas, but also to create a home, an architectural practice, a library, and the museum (which occupies Nos. 13 and 14). Soane then began filling the properties with objects, antiquities, sculptures, and paintings which interested him, many of which are worthy of the British Museum. His stated intent was to provide a museum to which “amateurs and students” should have access. The Museum was open in Soane’s lifetime, but visitors were not admitted in “wet or dirty weather”.
From the narrow entrance hall, the house opens out, beguilingly, into a series of rooms decorated in the neo-classical style. At the back of the building, one teeters along a narrow and circuitous route around the Colonnade, containing ancient Greek and Roman statuary, including a female torso from the Acropolis. A bust of Soane presides over the room, looking more like a Roman senator than an architect. Be careful as you go here, for some of the pieces are quite precariously balanced around the central atrium. Peer down to the basement ‘crypt’ below, and you will see the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti. Soane hosted a three-day party to celebrate the sarcophagus’s arrival, to which nearly a thousand people were invited; the basement was lit by over one hundred lamps and candelabra.
The crypt, designed to look like Roman catacombs, also houses a fine collection of Roman urns, funerary busts and other memorabilia, together with ivory chairs seized from Tipu Sultan, the maharajah of Mysore, after his defeat by the British in 1799; and miniatures of Napoleon commissioned by the Empress Josephine. Down here also is a crepuscular set of rooms called The Monk’s Parlour, intended for use by Padre Giovanni or Father John, a completely fictional character invented by Soane. The yard even contains the ‘Monk’s grave’, topped by a headstone carved with the words “Alas! Poor Fanny!” (The grave in fact contains the corpse of Mrs Soane’s beloved pet dog, Fanny.)
Everywhere you look there are cabinets and niches containing yet more quirks and curiosities, and Soane cunningly cheats the eye with the use of stained glass and mirrors, skylights and domes, to give the impression of more space, while windows within the house offers tantalising views of Roman fragments and marbles. The furniture in the house is all original, including a desk owned by former prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Perhaps the most ingenious room is the Picture Gallery, which cleverly displays over a hundred pictures on folding screens in a tiny space. Concealed behind the screens are two of Hogarth’s satirical works, The Rake‘s Progress and The Election, as well as paintings by Piranesi, Reynolds and Lawrence, and, notably, Canaletto’s magnificent Riva degli Schiavoni, looking West, as well as Soane’s own architectural drawings. Across the landing is the delightful Drawing Room, restored to its original colour scheme, which looks out onto Lincoln’s Inn Fields, possibly one of London’s most elegant squares.
A major restoration programme called Opening Up The Soane has resulted in more rooms being opened to the public: an entire second floor of No. 13, which comprises an ensemble of intriguing rooms. These include Soane’s private apartments, Mrs Soane’s Morning Room, and the Model Room above. Other spaces will include the Tivoli and Shakespeare recesses.
One visit is surely not enough to take in Sir John Soane’s extraordinary and eclectic collection. This treasure trove in the heart of London is one you will want to return to again and again.