Visiting Sir John Soane’s Museum is an experience unlike any other in London. What makes this “private museum”, in which Sir John and his family lived, so special is that he filled it with art, sculptures, furniture and artefacts – which remain displayed exactly as they were at the time of the renowned architect’s death, 180 years ago.
This is a building that needs to be seen in person, rather than read about – and I very much hope that what I’m going to share below will encourage you to pay it a visit.
The youngest son of a bricklayer, John Soane moved to London when he was 15. By the time he married his wife, heiress Eliza Smith, in 1784, he was a highly successful architect. We began our tour of their Lincoln’s Inn Fields home in the Breakfast Room which – and loved its creaky wooden floors, book-filled cabinet and wonderful painted ceiling.
Nothing, however, could have prepared us for our next stop: the Crypt, Sarcophagus & Sepulchral Chamber, which are are, literally, jaw-dropping. There are so many ancient treasures that you don’t know where to look first: statues, busts, friezes; even the odd skull. Having once housed wine and coal, the basement now pays homage to the burial chambers of ancient Rome, lit by sky lights.
We spent a considerable while in here, admiring Sir John’s many treasures and wondering what it must have been like to live & work surrounded by them. Eventually, however, we felt ready to sample some more recent history and repaired to the kitchens. The hub of the home, these are where the servants prepared meals, did the washing and received deliveries.
They still feel like working kitchens, particularly the Back Kitchen, in which resides Soane’s original patented kitchen range from 1812. I was particularly taken with the Dutch oven: a stand-alone unit used for keeping food warm – a modern-day hostess trolley, if you will – beautifully decorated so that it could stand upstairs in the Breakfast Room without spoiling the aesthetics (pity the poor servants who had to lug it up and down the stairs).
The Front Kitchen is surprisingly airy and well-lit and we learned that its built-in dresser and lobbies were designed to prevent cooking smells drifting up the main staircase. On display is the original crockery used by the Soane family, somewhat depleted by having been used by inhabitants of the house well into the 20th century.
We hadn’t realised that the remainder of the Soanes’ private rooms are sealed off from the public and are accessible only via one of the daily tours: we will definitely return to view the Morning Room, Oratory & Book Passage, Bath Room and Bed Room.
You get a glimpse into Sir John’s family life as you wander their home: portraits of Sir John, Eliza and their two sons abound; on the face of it, a happy family. I was sad to learn that, in reality, Sir John was estranged from both his sons by the end of his life, although he and Eliza enjoyed a notably happy marriage.
You can’t visit Sir John Soane’s Museum without venturing into its celebrated Picture Room, where we marvelled at the stunning collection of Venetian scenes by Canaletto and chuckled at the Hogarth paintings. I love the latter’s humour and it’s nice to think that Sir John did, too.
But my favourite room of all was the Library. Its views over scenic Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Pompeii-red walls and book-lined shelves contrive to make this my dream room. It’s where Soane did much of his entertaining and is made to look even bigger than its real size by strategically-placed mirrors. At night, it is lit by candles – and must look spectacular.
One of the items that caught my eye in the Library was a miniature version of the Soane family tomb, the real-life version of which is located just down the road, in St Pancras Churchyard. Thinking that the design looked familiar, I was intrigued to learn that this was the design upon which Sir Giles Gilbert Scott modelled the iconic red telephone box. He was a trustee of the Museum and took great inspiration from Sir John’s work.
It’s anecdotes like that which bring a building to life, don’t you think? A single blog post cannot do justice to the treasure trove that is Sir John Soane’s Museum, but I hope what I’ve shared has given you a flavour of the contents of this incredible building, which was left to the nation by Soane through a private Act of Parliament. I still have much to learn about the man and his work and shall definitely return, to acquaint myself further with both.