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Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


Tim Knox

(photography by Derry Moore)


London: Merrell Publishers, 2009

Published in association with Sir John Soane's Museum

Hardback. 160 p. + 148 colour ill. ISBN 978-1858944753. £24.95


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne



The Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inns Fields, London, is one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic houses in London. Its austere façade hides the most sensational decorative achievement of Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the great neo-classical architect. He lived there from 1794, filling it with thousands of books and drawings, and ornamenting it with pictures, models, statues and architectural fragments of all kinds. He designed it as a kind of private museum but ensured by legal means that it would be open to the public after his death. He even wrote and published three successive editions of a catalogue of its collections. Miraculously these collections and most of their original setting have survived, in spite of the efforts of his estranged descendants to disperse them.

Tim Knox, architectural historian and current director of the Soane Museum, has produced a well-informed introduction to this building, its history and its contents. He has been splendidly assisted in his task by photographer Derry Moore, who has managed to capture the ‘lumière mystérieuse’ emanating from the skylights and lanterns intended by the architect to give an unworldly, sometimes eerie atmosphere to some of the rooms, passages and vaults. Some of the plates in this book are really worthy of the extraordinary watercolours by John Michael Gandy commissioned by Soane to record the arrangement of his collections, and still displayed on the walls.

The book is divided into two parts, with first an introduction to the history of the museum, and secondly a detailed description of the rooms and collections. After a brief biographical sketch, Knox explains how in the early 1790s, Soane first bought n°12 Lincoln’s Inns Fields, an unpretentious Georgian terraced house, and redecorated it in his distinctive style. In 1807 he bought n°13, a larger house that he further extended at the rear, where he could accomodate his drawing office as well as his own private apartments. Finally the next-door house (n° 14) was bought in 1824, and Soane unified the façade of his property by adding a Portland-stone loggia as a centre-piece. He used the basements in the three houses to create shadowy crypt-like areas where he lodged part of his ever increasing collections. Meanwhile, he preserved the narrow inner courtyards and added several skylights to create unexpected visual effects throughout the house. Moreover, Soane managed to insert folding panels, hung with pictures on both sides, that could suddenly reveal new spaces and treasures to the bemused visitors.

The second part of the book, entitled ‘A Tour of the Museum’, does justice to the extraordinary variety and oddity of Soane’s collection. Soane, an increasingly successful and affluent architect, had begun collecting pictures, statues and antiques at the turn of the 19th century and kept adding more purchases during the next thirty years. Some of the highlights are the two famous Hogarth series of paintings on A Rake’s Progress and An Election. There are also paintings by Canaletto, Reynolds, Lawrence and Turner. Yet the general impression given to the visitor is that it is a sculpture and architecture gallery. Knox shows how heterogeneous it is, with statues of ancient gods side by side with a model of William Pitt, an ‘Egyptian crypt’ leading to a ‘Monk’s Parlour’ crammed with medieval casts and fragments. On the ground floor numerous busts (including Soane’s) peep between ancient urns and vases. Entire walls are hung with marble fragments of various origins. And of course, this is only the visible part of the treasure-trove. If one could open the book-cases, one would find several original Shakespeare folios, thousands of beautifully bound volumes of literature, architecture and archaeology, not to mention fifty-four volumes of drawings by the Adam brothers. Fortunately for scholars, these are available for inspection in the research rooms.

Knox’ book perfectly illustrates the plethoric character of Soane’s collections by its profusion of detailed information and sensational pictures. Yet it is rather short on interpretation, failing to link the architect’s display with the tradition of cabinets of curiosities. A comparison of Soane’s museum with another contemporary home-cum-museum, Thomas Hope’s residence in Portland Place, would also have been welcome. Still the reader is provided with the best possible visual guide to Soane’s palace of wonders.


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