You only see the first clue that number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is different if you happen to be looking up. Perched above a protruding extension on the second floor are two female figures, copied from the Acropolis in Athens.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is now at the heart of legal London, sharing a terrace with two international law firms and three barristers’ chambers. A very different setting to the residential square the young architect, his wife Eliza and their two sons John junior and George made their home in 1792. They immediately made an impression.
‘Even in his own time the house was much admired and it was extremely innovative,’ says Helen Dorey, the museum’s Inspectress – a title given to the second-in-command in the statute that gifted the collection to the nation. And the location was important. ‘The house faces south,’ Dorey points out, ‘meaning that it enjoys very good light – something Soane was a master at exploiting in his design.’
Inside you see this mastery everywhere. There are two courtyards letting the bright winter light stream down to basement level, illuminating stained glass on every floor. Even in the smallest alcove, Soane found a way to let daylight in through domed windows and wonderful skylights.
I start my tour in the dining room and library on the ground floor. The walls – where they aren’t hidden by the glass-fronted bookcases – are a vibrant, deep red. The leather-bound volumes reveal the eclectic interests of their collector: Volcanoes of Italy and Malcolm’s History of Persia sit alongside copies of Homer’s Iliad.
A narrow door leads into Soane’s cosy study and dressing room before I reach the most architecturally striking part of the building: Soane’s original ‘museum’ with its double-height colonnade under a domed ceiling, all designed from scratch.
Every wall and surface is full from floor to ceiling with marble busts and figures, some real, some very realistic plaster casts. You could stand for hours examining each one, but there is something equally unique and even more ingenious to see.
The Picture Room only measures about 12 feet square, but it manages to cram in a collection of paintings you would expect from a gallery three times the size. Three hinged walls open up to reveal a hidden treasure of masterpieces.
There are beautiful Venetian scenes by the artist Canaletto and a series of four pictures by William Hogarth called The Humours of An Election. To see everything this room offers, you need to take one of the daily guided tours.
As an extra incentive, your guide will also whisk you all the way to the second floor – stopping in the breakfast room with its hundreds of mirrors and domed ceiling, pausing at a rare early portrait of Napoleon and looking into you the brightly painted first-floor drawing rooms on the way – to the private apartments of Sir John and his wife.
Going through the original iron gate that separates this intimate part of the house from the rest, I arrive in Eliza’s private morning room where some of the personality of woman who influenced this house most is on display. When his wife died tragically at the age of 53, Soane couldn’t bear to change a thing in her bedroom next door for 19 years until, shortly before his own death, he converted the space to display architectural models. The Greek and Roman buildings that inspired him are placed above his own designs.
I glance into the, surprisingly small, room with its four-poster bed where Sir John himself slept. Then it’s back down the stairs, noticing 20 special things I missed on the climb up.
There is one more stop to make before I leave. In the basement, through the catacombs, is the largest and probably the single most impressive object in the collection: the sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I. This white, semi-transparent treasure is inscribed all over, in one corner with the misspelt name of the young Italian who discovered it.
I end my tour feeling simultaneously like I’ve seen more than I can take in, and like I’ve missed most of what’s on display. The only option is to make a return visit
Opening up the Soane
The historic house, museum and library of Sir John Soane was, at Soane’s request, to have been left untouched after his death over 180 years ago. However, alterations over the years to house staff and storage incurred significant losses. The house is now fully restored, including the entire second floor – private apartments where Soane and his wife lived and slept and the model room.
When to visit
Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00 to 17:00 (last entry at 16:30). Open on Bank Holidays. Entry is free. See www.soane.org for full details, tours and the ‘Soane Lates’ evening events.
Adam Smith @adamtimsmith worked in journalism at the BBC and ITV News for eight years, focusing on Westminster politics. After a year at the legal human rights charity Reprieve, he is studying for the Bar Professional Training Course.
© Gareth Gardner