SIR JOHN SOANE’S MUSEUM – the collection of an architectural magpie

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the private collection of Britain’s best known neoclassical architect. Displayed exactly how Sir John Soane wanted you to see it. Nothing has been moved since he died, he ensured that by having an Act of Parliament passed that said so.

Sir John Soane's Museum London quirky collection of architectural objects

Visiting Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

You can’t miss it. Sir John Soane’s house sticks out a good foot from all the others in row. He was determined that his house would stand out in every way. In fact it isn’t just one house but three. Soane bought number 12 in 1792, knocked it down and built a new house. In 1807 he purchased No 13 knocked that down and built a house and a museum. By 1812 the doors were open and the public could see his collection of marvellous things. By 1823 Soane had bought, demolished and created some more display space at number 14. When you visit now you are required to turn your phone off and place it and your handbag in a plastic bag to be collected at the end of the visit.

Facade Sir John Soane's Museum
Prominent Facade Photo: John Bridges

Who was Sir John Soane?

He was THE star architect of the Regency era. Prestige projects like the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery were his. If you wanted a fine country house, he was the man to commission. He built Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing as his own country house and show place for his talents, which you can also visit. When he died in 1877 his left his house and collection in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to the nation, on condition that nothing was changed.

Inside Sir John Soane’s Museum

The first room you encounter looks pretty normal but at the time its clever use of mirrors and skylights to maximise the light was revolutionary. Things begin to take a turn for the extraordinary as you head toward the back of the house and the Soane museum’s main collection.

Canaletto in the Picture Room at Soane Museum
Picture Room Photo: Gareth Gardner

John Soane loved pictures. JMW Turner was one of his closest friends. Soane hit on a novel way displaying all his pictures. He designed a top lit cube which was densely hung with paintings. To fit more in he had hinged panels fitted effectively tripling the display space. In this room you will find, among others, all eight of the Hogarth ‘The Rake’s Progress’ series, some Canalettos, Turner (of course) and a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Picture Room being opened Soane Museum
Picture room opening Photo: Gareth Gardner

Onwards to the Crypt and Monument Court. John Soane appears to have been something of an architectural magpie. Look there; a chunk of ancient Greek pediment, over there; a piece of Roman pillar. In the middle is a vast marble sarcophagus, too large even for an Oligarchs bath. This is the tomb of Seti I. Soane paid £2,000 for it in 1825. A sum so vast that even the British Museum baulked at it. When he unveiled his new purchase, he hosted a 3 day party to celebrate.

Sepulchral Chamber and the Sarcophagus of Seti I by candlelight photo
Seti I Sarcophagus Photo by Gareth Gardner

At the top of the stairs is the South Drawing Room, back to standard stately home territory here but painted in Turner yellow.  My companion thought the yellow a bit too yellow. I loved it but then I did once get married in a bright yellow dress.

Regency yellow drawing room Soane Museum
How Yellow is this! Photo: Gareth Gardner

Tours of the Soane Museum

You can wander at will round the museum or take one of the highlights tours. If you want to take a peek at the private quarters of Sir John and Lady Soane you can only do so on a tour. The private quarters also includes the amazing model room. At a time that most people didn’t travel and photography was not invented, the best way to show the wonders of ancient architecture was to make cork models of them. If you’ve ever wanted to see Ancient Rome rendered in cork this is the place to come.

Cork models of Parthenon, Forum
Model Room Photo: Gareth Gardener

Lates at the Sir John Soane Museum

After dark things get really special at the Soane Museum. On Friday nights the candles and some pretty spectacular spot lights come out. You get a glass of wine in the drawing room and can then wander at will. Most importantly camera’s are allowed, you can snap away to your hearts content.

Sir John Soane’s Museum need to know

  • 12-15 Lincolns Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
  • Open: Wednesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
  • Admission: FREE
  • Private room and highlight tours: £15
  • Friday Night Lates: £20 Booking essential

If your appetite for visiting London houses, including Soane’s Pitzhanger Manor is whetted check out my guide to London Historic Houses .

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