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.