, , ,

One particular discovery of this last trip to London was Sir John Soane’s museum house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I think I’d been there before, perhaps some twenty years ago, on my very first time in London – but, for some reason, the place had failed to strike me the way it has this time.

Now I’m rather in love.

In love with the unbelievable Crypt: you access the rear basement via the kitchen – and find yourself entirely surrounded by Sir John’s antiquities, filling every available space, piling up the walls, up to the eaves – in the most literal sense. Wherever you turn there is another statue, another fragment, another vase, another model, another, and another, and another… You pick your way from cabinet to small room, up narrow stairs, you look up and down this sort of antique-lined well, with its fanlight above… and then there is the room entirely lined with paintings – and not any paintings, either: a few Canalettos, a handful of Hogarts, a collection of Piranesi…

It’s a most curious place, packed full of wonders, equipped with domed mirrors to multiply the already busy impression… Yes – busy is the world. One can’t help imagining Sir John as rather febrile in the pursuit of both profession and interests. When we stepped into the very pleasant library, the nice lady presiding over it told us that many of the books were surely there for reference, and Sir John couldn’t possibly have read them all… I don’t know. I’m sure the lady knows – and yet it’s easy to imagine Sir John as an avid, omnivorous reader, gulping up book after book in three, four languages.

I spent some time browsing through the bookshelves, the usual and the not so usual… I confess that I was looking for Samuel Ireland’s folio publication of the fake Shakespearean papers… Well, Ireland didn’t know they were fake when he published them – or at least didn’t want to know they were – and the thing created huge interest in London’s Bardolatric circles. Soane was enough of a Shakespeare enthusiast to own a First Folio, keep a bust of the Bard, and take the usual pilgrimage at Stratford. Besides, one of his dismal sons had married the daughter of journalist James Boaden, one of the staunchest believers in the Ireland papers – although he grew skeptical later. So I have to wonder… In the end I didn’t find the book – but then it might be there. And even if it isn’t, I’m sure that the story and its developments would have been thoroughly discussed in that very library, because Sir John belonged to the set that would have a keen interest in Shakespeare’s paper, one way or the other…

And this is, I think the difference between my two visits at the Soane Museum: the first time, what I knew about the Georgian era was limited to Jane Austen. I must have admired the paintings and the collections, but I knew little of the mindset behind it all. Now I’ve read about what would have made Sir John the man he was: the education, the Neoclassical values, the (admittedly low-cost) Grand Tour, the rise through his profession, the collector’s obsession, the social circles he would move in… Now I know enough to place the house in perspective, with its wonders, its busy, eager, bright but more than a little obsessive feel.

Then there are the individual circumstances, of course: Sir John’s dismal sons, his failed attempts to raise another architect in the family, the country manor bought and then sold as all hopes for the future evaporated…

But let’s not wander. Go visit the Soane, if you happen by. It’s a lovely window open onto another era with its ideas, mindset, values and obsessions. Besides, they offer a range of interesting events, and I’m particularly taken with their Lates – evening visits and talks with special lighting. Something I look forward to, for one future visit to London.