Sir John Soane, dying just as the Victorian era began, was one of the worthies who used their wealth to accumulate treasures of all sorts. As an architect, he favoured sculpture and architectural artefacts (eg marbles from Rome and casts) but the famous series by Hogarth “The Rake’s Progress” may also be found here – perhaps making a welcome relief for those whose appetite for “old stones” is soon satisfied.
Son of a bricklayer or mason, his brother introduced him to a surveyor who worked for George Dance the Younger. Soane joined Dance, who saw he had considerable artistic talent, then Henry Holland with whom he stayed for many years. He attended architectural lectures at the Royal Academy, of which Dance was a founding member. From there his career took off. His life history, for which there is not space here, shows how he gradually established himself and accumulated the wealth he later used to satisfy his desire to collect objects. He also went on the Grand Tour, as so many young men did in those days, which may have sparked his desire to bring home and keep objects he had seen.
He was famous in his day responsible, among other buildings, for parts of the Bank of England (eg the massive external walls). He designed and built the Dulwich Picture Gallery, though changes have been made since, at the request of Sir Francis Bourgeois to house the latter’s collection (mainly paintings).
Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a large square, on one side of which is the Royal College of Surgeons. Soane bought three of the houses opposite to make enough space for his growing collection. He made changes as he continued to collect and had to put all the objects somewhere. It is a strange place to visit and can seem completely unorganised and confusing. However, it has to be accepted that the arrangement has an underlying plan, hopefully clear to architects and architectural students. It is based on Sir John’s ideas of “poetic” arrangement – whatever this means. However, he was always rearranging objects, rather suggesting it was difficult to do on that somewhat insubstantial basis.
A few years before his death an Act of Parliament, instigated by Sir John himself, was passed preserving his collection unchanged and open free to the public and students. So we can still visit this extraordinary museum, marvel at the variety held there – and contemplate how some of them (eg the sarcophagus of King Seti I of Egypt) were ever transported from their original home overseas. The way in which they were obtained is, as with any major collection at that period, a matter of conjecture. Glances into his living rooms help to show how such rich collectors lived – but these rooms do not entirely escape Soane’s mania for collection.
There are interesting exhibitions too, usually free, including those relating to other architects/designers (eg Robert Adam). Various events such as tours of the rooms, talks and workshops, for which there may be a fee, are also held and there is a monthly evening opening. Altogether a rich source of interest and surprise. The question arises – WHY ISN’T THIS DELIGHTFUL PLACE AND ITS EXHIBITIONS INCLUDED ON THIS WEBSITE?