The Art of Collection
My first visit to Sir Soane’s Museum London was 20 plus years ago, when I was a student at The Bartlett School of Architecture. I was fascinated by it at the time, but it was during my recent revisit that I was truly awed by his love of collecting.
The house, a labyrinth of curiosity, is crammed full of all kinds of objects, paintings, antiques and furniture from a different era. These were all perfectly preserved and kept in the condition that they were in at the time of his death almost 180 years ago. The joy of visiting the museum house is to discover, and surprised by the cluttered treasures in these somehow peculiar and unexpected spaces.
He was a renowned neo-classical architect and a professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. The house was his testing ground for architectural experimentation, as well as the teaching gallery for his students. He bought and rebuilt the three brick rowhouses, added a projecting Portland stone facade, created glass domes and skylights to allow light into the internal spaces for his eccentric collection, all based on his own interests.
The Sepulchral chamber was converted from the housekeeper’s sitting room; it houses the elaborate sarcophagus of the pharaoh Seti I, carved from a single vast block of translucent alabaster. Impressive, this is a 3,000-year old relic and weighing several tonnes. Soane had to knock down the back wall and mobilised more than 900 people over three days and nights to get this precious Egyptian antiquity into the basement.
Looking up, you’ll find the amazing double-height glass dome and the colonnade area where Soane educated his students on the classical principles of architecture. Every surface is covered with architectural fragments and sculptures, lit by the coloured glass dome, which created a dramatic effect of Mediterranean light in contrasting golden light and shade.
Equally intriguing is the Picture room. The walls can be opened out on hinged panels to display layers of paintings of Canaletto, Turner and Hogarth. By opening the last layer, one could look down to the gloomy Monk‘s parlour, designed as one of the living quarters for Soane’s alter ego Padre Giovanni. The small intimate setting includes various fragments from the Palace of Westminster and it overlooks the courtyard filled with medieval ruins and a monument to Fanny – Mrs Soane’s pet dog.
Soane is a lighting genius. The Breakfast room has a shallow but beautiful dome ceiling with hidden skylights above to cast coloured light into the room. The four corners of the dome have inset light-intensifying convex mirrors, and the rooms have more than one hundred mirrors that Soane described as “fanciful effects which constitute the poetry of architecture”.
Though the collection was not curated or arranged like a museum, I enjoyed wandering around, getting lost and absorbing the ambiance of the beautiful and intriguing home. It was a mind-boggling visit, and it may take years of careful inquiry to truly appreciate his collections. Just be prepared to be inspired in the most unexpected way!
By Ada Leung