Image of Soane's watercolour entitled 'View of monk's parlour looking north'

The Description of the House and Museum of Sir John Soane

Sir John Soane, an architect and avid collector of art and antiquities, spent years designing in his Lincoln's Inn Fields home and curating his collections within it. As Tom Drysdale highlights, an extra-illustrated volume in the British Library reveals how Soane's unique house-museum evolved.

In 2002 a previously unknown treasure was discovered among the collections at the British Library.[1] The volume, an extra-illustrated compilation of several texts by the Georgian architect, Sir John Soane (1753–1837), was found to contain nearly 100 unique pencil and watercolour drawings, as well as numerous prints and photographs, mostly relating to the architect’s house-museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.[2] The compiler of the volume was revealed to be Charles James Richardson (1806–1871), one of Soane’s former assistants who would go on to practice as an architect himself while teaching at the Government School of Design and publishing a number of his own works, including Architectural Remains of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I (1840) and A Popular Treatise on the warming and ventilation of buildings (1856).

As well as being an exceptionally inventive and successful architect, John Soane was a restless collector of all manner of works of art and antiquities. As with many of his peers, Soane’s habit began during his grand tour of 1778–80 and continued throughout his life, fuelled by his commercial success as an architect and his desire to learn from and encourage the study of the greatest examples of classical and contemporary art. Highlights of the collection include architectural fragments from the Pantheon, the sarcophagus of Seti I and paintings such as William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, not to mention such works in his library as a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. In the three neighbouring houses that Soane bought and rebuilt over the course of 32 years on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields he displayed these artefacts in the most ingenious of ways, with seemingly every nook and cranny filled with objects.

Office of Sir John Soane, view in the corridor adjoining the Dome

A watercolour of the view along Sir John Soane's corridor, featuring top-lighting, plaster casts and antique fragments.

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Sir John Soane left his collections of drawings, books, artworks and antiquities along with the house and galleries that he had built to display them in a bequest to the nation. The parliamentary Act for settling and preserving Sir John Soane’s Museum, Library and Works of Art… for the Benefit of the Public received Royal Assent on 20 April 1833 and guaranteed that the house would be accessible to the public in perpetuity.[3] The museum had, in fact, been open to visitors for several years prior to the Act, notably the students of the Royal Academy whom Soane invited to inspect his works of art and antiquities for inspiration in his role (from 1806) as Professor of Architecture. In 1830 Soane published privately his first guidebook, the Description of the House and Museum on the North Side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields – itself based on an earlier publication of 1827 written by the antiquary, John Britton – and this was followed by new editions in 1832 and 1835/6. It is these publications that form the body of Richardson's volume.

The drawings contained in the British Library’s volume are extremely rare in being found outside of Sir John Soane’s Museum, which still retains around 30,000 drawings produced or collected by Soane including many of his original designs as well as works by other famous architects. The largest such group is to be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum – these too appear to have been removed from Soane’s collection by Richardson.[4] As a result, Richardson has earned something of a bad reputation among scholars of Sir John Soane for his ‘abstracting’ of drawings from his master’s office. But in his discerning collecting of Soane’s drawings Richardson was in a way mirroring his master’s practice of ‘acquiring’ architectural fragments from the sites on which he worked, such as the medieval arches which had formerly been part of the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster and now pose as monastic ruins in the Monk’s Yard at 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

View of the Monk’s Yard looking east

Basement Ante-Room

Monk's Yard was conceived by Soane in 1824 as part of his ‘monastic suite’ – a set of spaces that he claimed were inhabited by the fictional hermit, Padre Giovanni, who can be interpreted as a reflection of Soane himself.

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While the text of the Descriptions set out to offer the reader a guide to the architecture of Soane’s house and the arrangement of his collections, any visitor to the museum will know that it is almost impossible to describe their collective effects in writing. Sir John Soane’s Museum must be seen to be believed. Luckily, though, Richardson’s illustrations go some way towards capturing the peculiarities of Soane’s home. Making drawings of the house and museum and using these drawings to produce lithographs (a type of print produced by drawing onto a special kind of stone) that could be included in the Descriptions seems to have been one of Richardson’s main duties while in Soane’s employ.[5] The majority of the watercolours in the British Library volume appear to be preparatory drawings for the lithographs, while some may be copies of other watercolours known to survive at the Soane Museum.

A common trait of the lithographs and the watercolours is that by showing the interiors in perspective rather than showing each wall in 2-dimensional elevation, Richardson places the viewer inside the rooms and immerses them among the collections. However, the watercolours have certain unique characteristics which may enhance our understanding of Soane’s Museum. The first is that although many of the watercolours can be connected to the plates that appear in the Descriptions, not all of them were selected to become prints and therefore many are unique views of the museum. For example, a view of the Monk’s Parlour showing part of Soane’s monastic suite in the basements of 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields has no known lithographic copy. Occasionally lithographs were prepared but not included in the published editions of Soane’s works, such as two views of the Basement Ante-Room found in Richardson’s volume. The British Library volume therefore provides rare glimpses of different aspects of spaces and objects within the Museum.[6]

View of the Monk’s Parlour looking north

Image of Soane's watercolour entitled 'View of monk's parlour looking north'

The Monk's Parlour contained artefacts ranging from medieval fragments, bosses in the form of grotesque heads, oriental vases, and models of buildings by Soane himself.

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An obvious advantage of the watercolours over the published lithographs is that they provide evidence of Soane’s colour schemes. Colour was important to Soane and often reflected something of personal significance. For instance, the ‘Pompeian red’ walls of the Library-Dining Room – Soane’s main reception room and the first major space encountered by visitors to his house – were intended to evoke the interiors of Roman villas, some of which (including those at Pompeii) were beginning to be excavated at the time of Soane’s grand tour. The entrance hall, meanwhile, was coloured to imitate porphyry. As an illustration of the continuing importance of Richardson’s watercolours, those of the second floor of the house were a key source for the restoration of Soane’s private apartments which was completed as recently as 2015.

Two views of Sir John Soane's Library-Dining Room looking north

A pair of watercolour views featuring the transformation of Sir John Soane's dual-use Library-Dining room in his Lincoln Fields home. 

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Soane’s stated wish to preserve the arrangement of his collections as it was at the time of his death masks the fact that he spent much of the last decade of his life moving items around and experimenting with different configurations. As new items were acquired or rooms remodelled, so arrangements changed as Soane searched for the perfect composition. The illustrations collected together in the British Library volume were not made at the same time but over the course of several years, and therefore they can be used to trace the changes that Soane made to his house and arrangements in the last decade of his life. Two views of the Library-Dining Room taken from almost exactly the same spot and showing the development of the triple-arched canopy which Soane remodelled after 1832 are a case in point. Owing to its unique assemblage history, the Richardson volume is perhaps the best source for tracking these changes, since multiple views of the same spaces made at different times are often placed physically adjacent to each other. For example, five views of the Basement Ante-Room that Richardson bound consecutively into his volume offer the clearest commentary on Soane’s rearrangement of his collections in this part of the Museum.

Two views of the Basement Ante-Room

View of the Monk’s Yard looking east

These two views of the Basement Ante-Room at Sir John Soane’s Museum illustrate some of the changes made to the arrangement of the collections in the last decade of Soane’s life.

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For all their worth, however, there are plenty of things that the illustrations for the Descriptions do not tell us about Soane’s Museum. For one thing, the spaces shown in the views are divorced from their domestic purposes. Other than the presence of the dining table at the end of the room, for instance, there is no indication that the views of the Library-Dining Room show the space that Soane used to host dinner parties for friends, patrons and potential clients. Nor is there any hint from the view of the Breakfast Room that this is where Soane and his wife Eliza would spend their mornings breakfasting before preparing their schedules for the day ahead.

View of Sir John Soane's Breakfast Room looking south

Image of Soane's watercolour entitled 'View of the Breakfast Room looking south'

A watercolour of Sir John Soane's Breakfast room featuring his most favoured motifs and personal belongings. 

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In fact, the illustrations lack any signs of life whatsoever. Only the reflection in a framed painting of the draughtsman, Charles Richardson himself, in a view of the Model Room on the second floor provides any evidence of human existence in the otherwise eerily deserted house.[7] The effect is to place the emphasis squarely on the house and collections, rather than on the architect and his domestic life, or indeed on the experience of the visitor. This was undoubtedly Soane’s intention in both publishing his Description and leaving the house to the public to become a national museum. The visitor or reader is invited to draw their own conclusions from the works on display and the architecture used by Soane to contain them, rather than being fed with any form of pre-existing narrative. Interestingly, a comparison with the Soane Museum’s website today shows that the current trend is for photographs of the house to include visitors engaging with the collections – a marked contrast to Soane’s chosen mode of representation.

View of Sir John Soane's Model Room looking north

Formerly a bedroom belonging to Soane's wife, Eliza, the model room is dedicated to a collection of cork and plaster models of classical buildings.

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Soane’s Description continues to be produced in different forms, and is currently available in its 22nd incarnation as A Complete Description (2014). Soane’s method of showing interiors without visitors continues to be imitated in the photographs therein, while the present edition even includes some of the lost watercolours of the Richardson volume. While the style of the text might have changed, with more emphasis placed on the provenance of Soane’s collections and aspects of his domestic life incorporated into the history of the house, the modern editions therefore offer a pleasing continuity from Soane’s original Descriptions and a vision of the Museum that is truly in harmony with its creator’s original intention.[8]

Footnotes

[1] Bianca de Divitiis, ‘A newly discovered volume from the office of Sir John Soane’, The Burlington Magazine 145, 1200 (March, 2003), pp. 180–198.

[2] His buildings include the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, 3 London churches, the Westminster Law Courts and the royal entrance to the House of Lords.

[3] 3° Gul. IV, Cap iv.

[4] Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey, Sir John Soane (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985); du Prey, ‘Soane drawings – a laying on of hands’, Architecture and Ideas 3.1, John Soane (2001), pp. 10–23.

[5] Divitiis, ‘A newly discovered volume’, pp. 184–5.

[6] Ibid, pp. 185–6.

[7] In contrast, a set of views of the Museum published in The Illustrated London News (25 June 1864) shows visitors poring over the Egyptian sarcophagus, the Breakfast Room and the Monk’s Parlour.

[8] For more on the history of the Description including its more recent editions, see Danielle Willkens, ‘Reading Words and Images in the Description(s) of Sir John Soane’s Museum’, Architectural Histories 4(1): 5 (2016), pp. 1–22.

  • Tom Drysdale
  • Project Officer (King's Topographical Collection)

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.