by Olivia Greenway
Sir John rose from a modest background, born to a brickmaker’s son in 1753, to become one of Britain’s most well known architects and designed the Bank of England as well as the Dulwich Picture Gallery. In his house, he displayed and collected numerous pieces of art and architectural artefacts, which have been left much as they were in his day, a stipulation in his will. Soane was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806.
Soane was particularly keen that his home should not just be a personal collection but also be accessible to his architectural students; and after his death, of benefit to all. When his existing house became too small, he bought up the house next door and then the one next to that to house his burgeoning collection. The house is a warren of rooms, with mirrors seemingly positioned to confuse; and good use made of every nook and available space.
Entering the house, possibly after a short queue (there is a restriction on the numbers admitted and strictly no photography allowed), one really is transported back to another time. Soane was very aware of light and so the ceilings have domes and his pioneering roof lanterns that diffuse a natural top light, creating an even flow of light over the walls, ideal for viewing paintings.
The most fascinating room is the Picture Room. Hidden behind large wooden panels, that themselves have glorious paintings attached to them, are Hogarth’s originals showing “The Rake’s Progress; a fictitious man’s fall from grace. If one waits in this room for more people to arrive, the curator, with white-gloved hands, will open up the screens and relate the stories behind the paintings.
Downstairs in the Crypt, quite eerie, cold and dark, is the oldest exhibit, the sarcophagus of Seti 1, an Egyptian king who lived over 3,000 years ago. Soane offered it to the British Museum, but they declined to pay the $2000 demanded, so he kept it.
A glimpse of the walled garden area may be had from one of the narrow passageways. Here one can see an elaborate stone mausoleum with “Alas poor Fanny” inscribed. Fanny was Soane’s wife’s lapdog, owning a small dog being a popular lady’s affectation of the period.
There is a sad personal story to Soane’s leaving his home to the nation; in fact he had to get an act of parliament to alter the usual practice of the estate going to the male heir. He lost his first son to tuberculosis. His other son, George, was a libertine, indulging in various activities that eventually led to his father disinheriting him. A year later, in 1815, Soane’s wife died, so he led a fairly lonely life until his own death in 1837. His break from his son was so final; he also made provision for George not to be buried in the family crypt.
A very special viewing of the museum may be enjoyed every first Tuesday of the month, when candles and paraffin lamps light the house, as they would have in his day. Gas was available in the street, and he used it to light his small, enclosed paved garden, but it was not regarded as safe enough for use indoors. The house opens at 6pm but queues form long before that.
In the small shop are memorabilia of the period, art books and gifts. All proceeds go towards the upkeep of this magnificent museum.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 5pm. Entrance free. Numerous stairs; not suitable for mobility-impaired visitors. Guided tour Saturday morning, small charge.