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Shrine of a connoisseur

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, by Tim Knox, photographs by Derry Moore

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London Tim Knox

Merrell, pp.160, 24.95

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, by Tim Knox, photographs by Derry Moore

Sir John Soane’s Museum is very nearly a folly — a mad grotto in the midst of Georgian London. It is clearly the monument of someone both eccentric and egocentric. What saves it from being Hearst Castle, Liberace’s palace or Michael Jackson’s Neverland, is that its creator was a great architect — the Bank of England was his masterpiece.

In the early 1790s Soane and his rich wife bought No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The house was rebuilt to Soane’s designs, and they moved there in 1794. This book, with its fine, atmospheric photographs by Derry Moore and the deftly informative text by the museum’s director, Tim Knox, leads us on a delightful tour of the building which Soane left to the nation. It is so vivid that you could almost spare yourself the trouble of going there; but then you would miss the surprise and revelation that I first enjoyed as a child — when an attendant folds out the hinged panels (‘planes’ they are called, I learn from the book) bearing paintings by Hogarth.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so did Soane. Virtually every square inch of the walls is covered with the fruits of his ‘collectomania’. Knox writes: ‘A mummified cat arrived in 1803 (another joined it in 1829), and Mrs Soane bought two watercolours from J. M. W Turner … in 1804.’ That sentence epitomises the blend of the sublime and the ridiculous in the place. Architectural fragments are everywhere, forming a sort of 3-D crazy-paving wallpaper. The great prize of the collections was the alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I (c. 1279 BC), acquired in 1824 from the scholar-huckster Giovanni Belzoni. And there are exhibits to the greater glory of Sir John Soane — a commanding portrait by Lawrence and a marble bust by Chantrey, which Soane modestly had set above Flaxman’s statuettes of Michelangelo and Raphael, to assert the superiority of architecture to sculpture and painting.


What was Soane like as a man? You might get the impression, from this book, that he was conceited, cantankerous, capricious and cruel. He refused to help his son George when the latter was imprisoned for debt and fraud in 1815. In revenge, on his release George attacked his father in two anonymous articles in The Champion magazine. ‘He has reared this mausoleum for the enshrinement of his body,’ he wrote of the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; of the library there he sneered: ‘The possessor … must stand in the midst of these hoarded volumes like a eunuch in a seraglio; the envious guardian of that which he cannot enjoy’. John Soane’s wife described the articles as her ‘death blow’, and indeed she died in 1815. Soane, in deep mourning, showed his manic side by framing the Champion articles and displaying them prominently in his house, inscribed ‘Death Blows’.

It is a pity that Tim Knox does not mention the diaries of the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, who like Soane junior, fell into hideous debt — he committed suicide in 1846. The diaries show Soane in a quite different light, as kindly and humane. In June 1815 Haydon writes:

Last November Soane said, ‘You owe me 15£. Suppose I make it fifty!’ Really the benevolence I have met with, I believe unexampled, as well as the malevolence.

In 1835, when the architects of England decided to present Soane with a gold medal, Haydon was too poor to subscribe to it, and wrote to Soane to tell him so. ‘He enclosed me directly a cheque for £10 … he ought not to have done so, and I ought not to have accepted it.’

In 1831, six years before Soane died, Haydon wrote an epitaph on him.

John Soane lies here, as good a Man as Earth
did ever tread,
But he had a waspish temper which embittered
on his bed,
Though with Riches & with Talents, God had
him endowed,
He fretted so at every thing, that his happiness
was bowed,
He lent his money with good will to all his
Friends who hinted,
And then felt worried like a fool their wishes
he had stinted.
He fretted when he had money, he fretted
when he’d none,
He fretted day & night, so he lies beneath this
stone.

Knox may be forgiven for omitting those lines, when we recall the epitaph that the painter’s eldest son, the archivist Frank Scott Haydon (who also committed suicide) wrote for him:

Here lies B. R. Haydon, as all men must,
It is hard to say whether his portraits or his
poetry were wust.


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