Posted by: marymarthatours | November 1, 2010

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London – a Collector’s Gift to England

While in London on our recent trip, Martha and I chose to visit a number of lesser-known sites that we had not previously seen. One of the most remarkable is Sir John Soane’s Museum.

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Sir John Soane’s Museum, Oct 2010, and portrait of Sir John Soane by Thomas Lawrence

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was an English architect, teacher, and collector. He worked in the Neo-Classical Style and is most well-known for the old Bank of England building. He also designed country homes, churches, and the first modern art gallery. He remodeled three houses on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the Covent Garden area of London, to serve as his home, his library, a workshop for his architectural students, a meeting place for clients, and most of all, as a showplace for his collections of art, antiquities, and architectural bits and pieces. When he died in 1837, Soane gave the house and all its contents to the British people and provided an endowment “for the care and maintenance of the museum” which actually lasted until 1947.

Martha and I visited the Museum on our first afternoon in London. We were surprised when we were asked to put our purses into plastic bags, but soon came to see why a swinging shoulder bag could be a disaster. The plain exterior is in complete contrast to the astounding interior, where art and sculpture are EVERYWHERE. Every available surface, vertical and horizontal is utilized to show off Soane’s treasures.

One room, highlighting a series of Hogarth and other paintings, has three sets of walls, hinged to open as separate panels; it houses more than 100 paintings. For all of its clutter and congestion, the house is amazingly bright. Soane incorporated all sorts of skylights and windows to display his collections in natural light.

Inside photography is not allowed, but here are some prints showing the inside as it looked in 1864. It looks much the same today.

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Sarcophagus room and breakfast room at the Soane Museum

Martha’s thoughts: I found this house-museum to be a very strange and unique place. To actually live here must have meant living in the middle of a cluttered collection of antiquities. How spooky for those who are superstitious. And it was odd to see the furnishings of ordinary daily living (beds, dining room table, etc.) in what would otherwise be simply a museum. This really was a lived-in museum. I had anticipated that I would find Sir John Soane’s Museum to be of minimal interest. WOW, was I surprised, both by the site itself and my reaction to it. It is amazing and fascinating. Very over the top.

Mary’s thoughts: I think my favorite piece was a “reject” from the British Museum – the huge, alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, carved inside and out with intricate hieroglyphics. Situated two floors below a domed skylight, the sarcophagus’ alabaster walls are translucent when the sun shines down on it. Unfortunately, it was cloudy while we were there.

Both Mary and Martha put this London attraction high on our “Recommendations of Things to See in London” list, but not for those who prefer the “ordinary” tourist sights. As Martha says, this place is “over the top”.


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