A neo-classical architect married an heiress, bought a house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then another, and another. He knocked them all through and filled every inch of space with his extensive collection of architectural fragments, sculptures and paintings. He lost three of his sons, fell out with the last one, and left the lot to the nation. Let’s hear it for Sir John Soane.

The John Soane Museum is a treasure house of artworks that wouldn’t look out of place in the British Museum. In the 18th century a wife’s wealth immediately transferred to her husband. Thanks to a good marriage (and a successful career as an architect) Soane was able to travel widely. He collected innumerable examples of Greek and Roman architecture, as well as great works of art.

Grand Tour

Like many gentlemen of the age, Soane undertook a Grand Tour of Italy in 1778, where he was inspired by the Greek and Roman ruins. He collected bronzes from Pompeii, Roman mosaics, Greek vases, and a host of medieval artefacts. He also collected thousands of architectural fragments and models.

In 1806, Soane was made Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. He began to organise his books, casts and models so that his students could easily access them. The architectural fragments were a vital resource for poorer students of architecture who couldn’t afford to travel to Italy. Soane opened up his home to students the day before and after each of his lectures. The house became known as an ‘Academy of Architecture’.

To accommodate his eclectic collection, Soane made many changes to the houses. These included the installation of skylights to bring more light into the rooms.

‘One of the most complex, intricate, and ingenious series of interiors ever conceived’. Oxford Dictionary of Architecture

The Picture Room

Just one example of Soane’s ingenuity, was the room he created in 1824, to house his collection. He was 71. Three of four walls include a number of hinged panels that open out to reveal layers of hidden pictures. These include Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, eight paintings depicting the story of Tom Rakewell, a spendthrift who ends up in Bedlam. There are 138 works on display including Canaletto’s ‘The Riva degli Schiavoni’ and paintings by J M W Turner, Henry Fuseli, Piranesi.

Upon Eliza’s premature death in 1815, Soane made his most expensive purchase. He bought a 3,500-year-old alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs. To celebrate, he held a three-day party that was attended by 890 guests, including Samuel Coleridge, J M W Turner and Robert Peel.

Soane’s own architectural work includes some of Britain’s most famous buildings. The include the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bank of England, Palace of Westminster and Pitzhanger Manor (Soane’s country house).

He died in 1837 and bequeathed his museum home to the nation.

‘Soane’s ability to continue to engage the attention of architects… without inhibiting their powers of invention, is possibly his greatest legacy’. Margaret Richardson, curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm.

Book midweek tickets through the website.

Tickets cost £10 per person (no concessions or refunds).  Each tour lasts an hour.