Sir John Soane’s House:   A Slice of Regency London

In fact, this historic house museum in the heart of London is closer to its Regency appearance than it has been for more than a century. Over the course of the past seven years, a major renovation has been conducted which has reversed a number of earlier changes to the house which were made after Sir John Soane’s passing and contrary to his wishes. Therefore, anyone paying a visit to London can now see Sir John’s house much closer to the state in which he had intended when he left it to the government for use as a museum. Sir John had become rather eccentric in his last years, and now his former home more accurately reflects his life there.

Sir John Soane and his museum . . .

In September of 1753, John Soane was born in Oxfordshire, the second son of a bricklayer, also named John. Sadly, John Soane, Sr., died when John, Jr. was only fourteen. John’s elder brother, William, was twelve years his senior, and a bricklayer like his father. After his father’s death, young John went to live with William, who arranged for John to work in the office of the noted architect, George Dance, the Younger. At the time, Dance was the surveyor of the City of London and was also a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts. It may have been Dance who advised John Soane to attend classes at the Royal Academy school in 1771. The following year, John Soane began working as an assistant to the architect Henry Holland. The young man clearly showed talent in his chosen profession, as he was granted a scholarship to enable him to travel on the Continent by King George III. In 1778, John Soane went to Italy, by way of Paris, to continue his studies in architecture.

Upon his return to England, in June of 1780, John Soane gradually became an architect of country houses. He attracted a growing number of clients and his practice was fairly successful. Then, in 1788, he was appointed architect to the Bank of England, a position he would retain for the next forty-five years. Soane impressed many with his unique and inventive interpretations of the Neo-Classical style, and he was offered several more government appointments. Then, in 1806, John Soane succeeded his former mentor, George Dance, as the professor of architecture at the Royal Academy of Art. Soane went on to design a great number of important buildings and he was knighted in 1831, by King William IV.

In August of 1784, John Soane married Miss Elizabeth Smith. Soane loved his wife very dearly, and always called her Eliza. She became his closest confidante for the rest of their lives together. They had four sons, two of whom, John and George, survived to adulthood. Eliza Soane shared her husband’s interest in art and antiquities. Over the years, both of them were involved in collecting a vast array of unique items with which to adorn both their London and their country homes. Soane also built up a substantial library on a wide range of topics in which he was interested.

In June of 1792, John Soane used part of an inheritance to buy a house in London at No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane demolished the house and built a town home to his own design. In June of 1808, Soane bought the house next door, at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He leased the bulk of the house back to its original owner, and built his office in the back garden of the property. In July of 1812, Soane demolished No. 13 and expanded his house onto that property as well. He and his family moved in to the larger, rebuilt home in October of 1813. That expanded house remained the residence of John Soane and his family for the remainder of the Regency. However, Soane and his wife continued to add to their art collections, a practice he continued even after his wife’s passing. By 1823, there was not enough room in Soane’s London townhouse to accommodate his collections. Therefore, he bought No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and demolished that house in order to build his Picture Room, which was attached to No. 13 over the stables on that third property. In March of 1825, he rebuilt that part of the house to match the facade of the rest of his London town home.

Sadly, Eliza Soane died in November of 1815. She had been suffering from poor health for sometime, but her husband was convinced the death blow was dealt by his own son, George. In July of 1811, George married Agnes Boaden, the daughter of the playwright, James Boaden, contrary to his parent’s wishes. He wrote to his parents, informing them that he had married Agnes mainly to spite them. Agnes’ father failed to pay the dowry he had promised and, in March of 1814, George demanded his father provide him with an income of £350 per year. Otherwise, he threatened that he would become an actor and go on the stage. That September, Agnes gave birth to twins, one of whom died shortly after birth. Then, in November of 1814, George was imprisoned for debt and for fraud. In January of 1815, George’s mother paid off his debts and the person accusing him of fraud, in order to secure his release from prison.

In September of 1815, an anonymous article was published, entitled The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more Particularly of Architecture. John Soane was singled out for a singularly vicious and personal attack in that article. By mid-October, it was known that the author of that article was John’s own son, George. Eliza Soane was terribly shocked and hurt to learn of her son’s public attack on his father. She wrote to a friend about the repercussions caused by the article, "Those are George’s doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again." Eliza Soane died on 22 November 1815. Her husband was heart-broken at the loss of his beloved wife and confidante. He wrote in his diary that he had lost " . . . all I wished to live for!" The pain was even greater for him, since he held his son responsible for her early death.

Author’s Note: In December of 1815, Eliza Soane was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church. The following year, in 1816, Soane designed an elaborate tomb to stand above the vault in which his wife was buried. It was in Soane’s unique interpretation of the Neo-Classical style, and was built from Carrara marble and Portland stone. This year marks the bicentennial of that tomb for Eliza Stone, which was also a design that became the proto-type for the classic red telephone boxes that are ubiquitous on the streets of Britain. One hundred and ten years later, the architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, based his design for the telephone box on the main canopy of Soane’s tomb for his wife in St. Pancras Old Church churchyard.

After his wife’s passing, John Soane continued as professor at the Royal Academy, as well designing buildings and continuing to collect art and antiquities. He was displaying more and more of his collections in his house in London, so that it was as much museum as residence. His son, John, died in 1823 and was buried in the vault with Eliza. By then, George was living openly in a ménage à trois with his wife and her sister, by whom he had at least one child. George was also known to be abusing both women. By this time, George was sinking deeper and deeper into debt, and it was believed he may have been involved in at least some criminal activities.

As he grew older, Sir John Soane knew that he did not want his reprehensible son to get his hands on his property, particularly his London town house and its many valuable contents, a number of which he had acquired in partnership with his beloved wife, whose death he blamed on George. Therefore, he sought a private Act of Parliament in 1833, by which, upon his death, his London town house would become the property of the British government and would be maintained as a museum of his collections in perpetuity. By that same Act of Parliament, Sir John Soane completely disinherited his son, George. When Sir John Soane died, in 1837, his was buried in the same vault with his wife and his son, John. George Soane, furious to discover that he had been left only an annuity of £52 per annum, set out to challenge his father’s will. The courts rejected George’s initial claim, as well as his subsequent appeal of their decision. Despite repeated attempts, he was never able to get his hands on any of his father’s property.

Sir John Soane stipulated that the curators of his museum should always be architects. Based on his own experiences of constant building, he should have known better. None of those architects were able to resist making changes to the museum over the years, despite the fact that such changes were in clear violation of the terms of Sir John’s will, and the Act of Parliament which created his museum. Some walls were knocked down, others were extended and new walls were built. Also, an increasing number of the objects in the collections were put into storage. The building was partially damaged by bombing during World War II, which seems to have altered the thinking of those responsible for the care of this special museum. They finally saw the value of a relatively intact early nineteenth-century professional gentlemen’s London town house, no matter how eccentric that gentleman might have been.

Over the course of the last half century, Sir John Soane’s museum has undergone several renovations. However, each those efforts were to gradually restore Sir John’s home closer to the state it was in when he left it to the British government. The most recent renovation has taken seven years, funded by seven million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As part of these renovations, Sir John’s private apartments and his architectural model room (formerly Eliza Soane’s bedchamber) have been reopened. During this past summer, the catacombs, the Regency-era kitchens and the lobby to the breakfast room have all been restored to their original state. Or, as was stated in an article in the Financial Times this September, the restoration "has returned the house to its intended state of wackiness."

By the time Sir John Soane died, his London town home was chock-a-block with a vast array of objects he and his wife had collected over the years. His friends always enjoyed their visits to his home, where he might take them from room to room, showing them various parts of his collections. Sir John was very careful about where he put objects in conjunction with one another, often seeing special links between them. He left inventories which called out where each object should be placed, and though some are tucked into places where it might be hard to see all of them, it is the collection as a whole which reveals Sir John’s idiosyncratic concept of his possessions. Now that the museum has been returned to a state closer to what it was when Sir John lived there, modern-day visitors can walk though his house, imagining what it might have been like to have been his guest.

If you are planning a trip to London, you might want to put a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum on your agenda. Something you might want to keep in mind is that on the first Tuesday of every month, the house is open in the evening, during which time it is illuminated primarily by candlelight. Regardless of whether you view Sir John Soane’s home by sunlight or candlelight, it is well worth a visit if you are interested in the history of art, architecture or Regency London.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Sir John Soane’s House:   A Slice of Regency London

  1. sounds well worth a visit

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I thought so. When I was in London, some years ago, I tried to see it, but it was closed the day I went. But it is on my list if I am ever able to get back to London.

      =^..^=

  2. Summer says:

    Yikes! What a lot of family drama. This George sounds like a real piece of work, even though his threat to become an actor seems whimsical today.

    The candlelight experience is not to be underestimated – it’s such a very different feeling from contemporary lighting. My husband and I attended a candlelight chamber music performance at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg that was quite an experience. The entry was a bit disconcerting, though, as it was our first visit, and the entry was very dark, and you could just make out that there were an intimidating number of weapons on display!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have to admit, I did chuckle when I read George’s threat, though I realized it was all too real to his poor, long-suffering parents.

      What a treat to be able to see the Governor’s Palace by candlelight! In case you are interested, all those weapons were displayed in the entry area for the specific purpose of intimidation. It was common in many country homes, and even a number of government buildings, through the end of the eighteenth century, to have a display of weapons in the hall or entrance way in order to demonstrate the power of the property-holder.

      I agree with you about candlelight. A few years ago, one of my friends, who has a lovely old Victorian house, had a Christmas party for a large group of friends. With the exception of the Christmas tree itself, all of the main rooms of her house were lit only by candlelight. It was lovely, and the ladies, in particular, found the lighting very flattering. However, we all made it a point to keep an eye on her kitten, who was fascinated by the flickering flames and tried several times over the course of the evening to smack one with her paw. I am pleased to say the little dickens survived the evening without a singe!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Summer says:

        The intimidation definitely worked! And the Governor’s Palace has an impressive collection. It was a lovely concert though, all in costume and on period instruments or reproductions.

        One of the ladies in our local regency society has given at least one candlelit whist party. No word on whether she’s got cats. One wonders how many arsonist cats history has seen. (Though I’m sure most of them burn themselves and stop playing with candles.)

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          From what I have read about the keeping of pets in the past, cats were seldom given the run of the house, or there might have been more “arsonist cats.” Most people kept dogs, and, even if the dog had the run of the house, they don’t usually have the same interest in things that move. Though, I must say, an “arsonist cat” might make an interesting plot bunny!

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Summer says:

            Ha! Well, that would be one reason why. Do you have any information on catkeeping of the era? (The animal loving heroine sneaks in cats. No cat- related arson planned.)

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              There have been a few books published in the last few years on the history of animal treatment and attitudes towards pets, some of which cover the Regency. From what I have read to date, during the Regency, most cats were typically relegated to barns and other areas where rodents were a problem. They were primarily prized for their mousing skills and were expected to work for their keep. Some people were also superstitious when it came to cats, since felines had gotten a bad rap, along with witches in previous centuries, and they did not want them in their homes.

              There is also an interesting psychological aspect to pet choice which I learned some years ago. Independent-minded and introverted people tend to prefer cats, since they appreciate the quiet demeanor and self-reliant spirit of many cats. Dogs seem to be most appreciated by people who are more outgoing, but tend to follow the rules.

              It is entirely possible that there were people who kept cats solely as pets during the Regency. However, that seems to have been more likely in the country than in the city, since cats would need to go outside or be provided with a box of sand or soil in order to do their business. Based on the psychological profile of cat-lovers, it would make perfect sense for an independent-minded young lady to wish to keep a cat as a pet. A cat would also be a bit easier to conceal than would a dog, which makes a cat a better choice as a secret pet.

              Regards,

              Kat

              • Summer says:

                Big thanks. It is a country setting and I’d assumed it would be a bit like the farm my mother grew up on. There were some tame cats and the adults shooed them out but the kids kept letting them back in!

                My finds for the period have been few and inconsistent. I found one rather amusing article that calls them treacherous and notes that ladies like cats better than men because cats are apparently duplicitous flatterers. (I don’t remember how the author came to this conclusion or if there was any logic to it.) I have found one print of what appears to be a wealthy lady with four cats attended by a servant. Would have to do some digging after those. It would appear someone was keeping pet cats – I wasn’t sure whether that was quite normal, though.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                I think your take on cats in the Regency, especially in the country, would be very like the events on your mother’s farm home. How could anyone who loved animals, kids in particular, not be drawn to soft, cuddly, purring fur critters?

                One book which might be of use to you is the children’s story, Felissa, or; The Life and Opinions of a Kitten of Sentiment. It was published in 1811, just at the beginning of the Regency, and is a contemporary tale about the adventures of a kitten kept as a pet. I compared it with a similar story about a puppy in my recent post Regency Bicentennial: The Dog Follows the Cat of Sentiment. There is a link in that article to a full copy of Felissa on Google Books.

                Though I do not usually recommend fiction for research purposes, there is a very good historical romance set in the late Georgian period in which the heroine keeps cats as pets. It is The Seduction, by Julia Ross, who is an excellent writer and a very diligent researcher. The cats are important to the plot, and a number of details around keeping cats are noted in the story. However, fair warning, it is a pretty steamy romance, though I found it extremely well-written and it is one of my favorite non-Heyer romances.

                Regards,

                Kat

      • I wouldn’t dare have candles, we have 12 cats…. though to be fair they do learn ‘no’ about open fires. Candlelight to me will mark my age as it means the ‘winter of discontent’ and all the power cuts, and struggling to do homework by flickering candle flames rather than any level of romance.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I can see your point. A dozen cats and even one burning candle could be a recipe for trouble!

          Though I am sorry your past experiences have taken the romance out of candlelight for you.

          Regards,

          Kat

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