Tenacity pays off. On a prior London visit, I had briefly visited Sir John Soane’s Museum off Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Regrettably, I’d come shortly before closing time, so I enjoyed only a cursory visit. What I saw, though, made me determined to come back.
"It’s my turn to pick!" I announced after my husband and son had each chosen a place to visit in London. Neither seemed particularly enthusiastic about seeing Soane’s Museum, which made their later unfeigned delight all the sweeter.
Soane, son of a bricklayer, rose to become one of England’s greatest architects and a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, with connections to an astonishing number of the prominent people of his time. An avid collector, his museum houses the objects he assembled for his own pleasure and the edification of his students. It provides a fascinating look at one individual’s taste as well as a window into another era, for in 1833 by Act of Parliament, Soane’s house was established as a public museum, with the stipulation that as little as possible be changed.
You know that "Star Trek" episode in which the crew passes through a time portal? That’s the feeling you get when you step through the museum door and into a narrow passageway, where a green-coated staff member welcomes you and asks you to sign the guest book. Entry into the museum is free, though the museum pamphlet is well worth £1.
Soane set about in a deliberate manner to put together the museum, though it might seem to the casual visitor that there is little method to the labyrinth of rooms and passageways. I was struck on my first visit by what seemed like the haphazard arrangement of disparate objects; on this second tour, I began to grasp that in fact Soane had been aiming for pleasing contrasts, sympathetic placements, and, above all, an effect.
Must-see items in the museum include the Picture Gallery, with Hogarth’s famous "Rake’s Progress" series, the sarcophagus of Seti I (father of Ramses the Great) in the basement Crypt, and several fine Canalettos in the New Picture Room. But, in truth, this museum best lends itself to odd reveries and chance personal connections.
As we stood before Seti I’s sarcophagus, the attendant sidled over and regaled us with the story of how Soane had purchased the sarcophagus from the widow of Belzoni, a circus giant turned amateur archaeologist, and how at the time the British Museum, strapped from purchasing the Elgin Marbles, had let the sarcophagus slip through its fingers. Soane was so delighted with this coup that he held a three-day celebration upon its arrival, with London society flocking to see it. As the attendant spoke, I could almost sense ladies in rustling silk gowns and gentlemen in knee britches gliding by to peer, as I did, down into the sarcophagus, there to behold the image of Nut, protectress of the dead.