by Tom L. Freudenheim
In the Model Room, Soane's passion for architecture is on full display.
Sir John Soane's
Museum in London does a better job of transporting us to the late 18th and early 19th centuries than most of that great city's more robust and equally venerable institutions. Sited on the north side of historic Lincoln's Inn Fields-London's largest public square-the museum is a multilayered magical ensemble: three connected townhouses designed by one of England's most famous architects and filled wall to wall and floor to ceiling with his varied collections: antiquities, furniture, painting, sculpture, architectural drawings and architectural models-over 40,000 objects in all. Perhaps its most important virtue is in reminding us of the intimate relationship of an accomplished, multitalented man with the environment he created for himself and planned to share with others.
The son of a bricklayer, John Soane was born in 1753 in a village near Oxford but began training as an architect in London by the time he was 15 years old. Within a decade he had become an award-winning student at the Royal Academy, using his traveling scholarship to embark on the Grand Tour-at that time a requisite rite of passage for young men of the upper classes, assuring them of a passing acquaintance with both classical antiquity and the Renaissance by exposing them to Rome and other important sites in Italy.
For Soane it was much more than a cultural initiation, providing the basis for both his architectural vision and his voracious collecting habits. No other single venue better expresses the centrality of the Grand Tour to British culture in Soane's time. The museum exemplifies the layered visual riches to which fortunate tour participants were exposed, and attests to the accumulation of art and other objects that Soane acquired with the help of friends he met during his two-year Italian sojourn. It was the beginning of a collecting compulsion that occupied him for the rest of his life.
Soane purchased three houses-Nos. 12, 13 and 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields-between 1792 and 1823. Using them as both offices and living quarters, he demolished and rebuilt them over time. As a result, today's museum visit leads through a seductive series of passageways, staircases and rooms that are as complex and varied as the array of works on display.
Those looking for the psychological roots of Soane's compulsions might find them in the loss of two infant sons and the subsequent serious relationship and financial problems he had with the two sons who survived. They suggest levels of anguish that may explain his acquisitive tendencies as much as the financial prowess he had achieved both from his own work as a successful architect and via his wife's considerable inheritance.
On the lower level of the museum, the Sepulchral Chamber houses the sarcophagus (1280 B.C.) of the Pharaoh Seti I, while the Catacombs hold a number of Roman funerary urns. The arrangement of sequential claustrophobic and double-height spaces is so crowded that it avoids feeling dour, suggesting an elaborate gothic sensibility ironically at odds with Soane's preference for the elegance of classically inspired Italian Renaissance tastes. We're never far from that Renaissance aesthetic, since copies and casts of famous antiquities (e.g., the Apollo Belvedere) sit amid a seemingly endless array of relief sculptures. A visitor's eyes dart around in all directions, trying to figure out the arrangement logic behind such a complex and layered assemblage.
Soane's obvious intention to overwhelm with visual saturation remains fundamental and is intrinsic to any first impression of the museum. Yet ensembles of objects juxtaposed against each other, including works from antiquity through the Renaissance, reaffirm Soane as a discerning curator. There may well be an analogy here to the melange of disparate objects that Albert C. Barnes interspersed with the paintings in his eponymous suburban Philadelphia galleries a century later.
f the various living quarters (spaces for cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, working) seem secondary, they also are chock-full of art, albeit more conventional yet wonderful paintings, watercolors and drawings, so that a tour of the three connected houses provides some insights into the ways in which early 19th-century nontitled Londoners lived. With over 30,000 architectural drawings in the collection (9,000 alone by Robert Adam), it's no surprise that a number of Soane's are also on view. And while the picture gallery here may be relatively small compared with that of contemporaneous grand London houses and stately country homes, it's no less remarkable, displaying some great paintings, including three delicious Canaletto Venetian scenes (once again reminders of the Grand Tour) and all eight of William Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress" canvases (1732-34)-themselves worthy of a museum visit.
John Soane arranged for an Act of Parliament that left his home to the nation following his death in 1837, with visitors to be admitted free of charge (but not in "wet or dirty weather")-an arrangement that continues to this day. More than a monument to a rich and presumably vain architect, Sir John Soane's Museum epitomizes the wonder of collecting and the joy of sharing one's riches.
-Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.