Sir John Soane's Museum. What's that in the fog? A hawk predicts my driving test result.
A piece about a place that means a very special place and the idea of a home.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
A brick house in a London square, joined to its neighbours on either side, is distinguished by an additional façade of stone. It looms forward a little, classically white and grand. Its three first floor windows are arched and enlarged. Between them are original gothic pedestals on which in their original contexts saints would have stood. Here they are uninhabited and repurposed as ornament. Above the second floor stand copies of two Greek caryatids gazing serenely over this street in Holborn. These too would have borne something on their heads but here carry nothing. Once you’ve recognised these unfilled spaces above the pedestals and caryatids, their emptiness tingles in the mind. An appropriate sensation to have before stepping inside: the itch of an idea. Sir John Soane (1753-1837), whose house this is, was a prodigiously inventive and learned architect. His adaptations to the fabric of this house deploy several of his most brilliant innovations, and the collections he amassed inside of many hundreds of objects seem limitless in detail and connotation. There is an inner richness here that is for the first time visitor as bewildering as it is unexpected.
Of the many gods that reside in Sir John Soane’s Museum, clustered in alcoves, standing on plinths, leaning from walls, I choose Artemis as the presiding deity. She is Greek rather than Roman – an Ephesian Artemis, not a Diana – her face and hands of black marble and her body a wonder. Static and centred with none of the long-limbed athleticism of a hunting Diana, she is a swollen column with many breasts, reduced in design to clustered bulbs, encircling her torso. Around her waist and legs, pairs of animals are nested. This Artemis is not the hunter in the forest but the endlessly generative forest itself, matrix of life and death, source of the manifesting forms. She lives among many other pieces of sculpture near the centre of this house of flowing narrow spaces, serene open spaces, dense accumulation and sudden shafts of light from above. Sir John Soane’s house is both the clearing in the forest and the forest itself.
Artemis shares her lodgings with Apollo, Shakespeare, Gothic sculptures, paintings by Hogarth, capitals, medallions, majolica, illuminated manuscripts, Roman marbles, a grave of a dog, clocks, a breakfast room, a dressing room, a kitchen, seats, sofas, lavatories. This is a house that demonstrates what in Sir John Soane’s version of civilisation has to be housed – felt, known, gathered, blended together, reconciled, collided, ordered and inventoried. Here are both the writhing ancient mythologies and antiquity’s spacious reason and geometry. All are required in order to be flexible, informed and capable of originality, which is to say rediscovery and new combinations. It is T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (‘Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense …’) with windows, stairs and plumbing.
Seen in a different mood, these conjunctions can look different: less strenuous, more amusing. Arguably, there is something in Sir John Soane’s house and its cosy proximity and the domestic and the historically august, that conforms to a certain old cliché of Englishness, one character in the cast of English eccentrics, enthusiastic, harmless, sexless, academic. The house is pre-Victorian but could almost have been imagined by Dickens and given to one of his characters endowed with an excess of fantasy and charm, like Wemmick in Great Expectations who lives in a suburban house shaped like a castle and fires a cannon once a day. But this is a silly mood of affection only which the house outlasts with its grandeur and purpose. The house asks the question as to how else we should live? Don’t we always have our visions with our tea? Sir John’s house simply makes it obvious – that Tennyson wrote his poem of Simeon Stylites in a comfortable chair, that Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian with air-conditioning and an adjustable lamp.
Truly the house is not Victorian. It belongs first of all to the eighteenth century and then to pre-Victorian Romanticism. It is not thickly upholstered and darkly patterned; its acquisitions are not imported market commodities. Its interiors are not, as Walter Benjamin said of the bourgeois homes of the later nineteenth century, cockpits of capitalism. Its fantasies are not escapist, orientalist, fetishized or in any way stupefying. There are no artificial paradises here. Preposterously crammed as it is, its imagination is lucid and constructive, redolent of the Grand Tour, the young gentleman’s journey around southern Europe and its antiquities that capped the education of that class in the eighteenth century with exalting sights and melancholy reminders. Sir John Soane himself undertook the tour not as an independently wealthy gentleman – he was the son of a bricklayer – but as a young professional architect funded by a scholarship he had received from the Royal Academy. He made drawings and measurements at Greek and Roman sites, and later put this knowledge to use in his designs for the Bank of England and Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, for all of his buildings.
A curtain of amber light, a presence of no substance, glowing on one side of a room. A room enlarged but only visually, doubled in reflections’ false perspectives. Soane’s house shows off not only his possessions but his inventions. He was a pioneer in the manipulation of a person’s perceptions inside a room. He dilates space with mirrors, colours sections of air with skylights. He creates long vistas down passageways, large perspectives are pleated into the structures of everyday living. In his home, Soane achieved what he called ‘the poetry of architecture,’ an assortment of moods and sensations engendered by the constructed environment. Domesticated here in these effects is the aesthetic of the Romantic Sublime of Soane’s day, the pleasurable frissons produced by sunsets, distances, chasms, abrupt changes in terrain. Soane’s friendship with the painter J.M.W. Turner comes as no surprise standing in the diffuse gold light admitted by certain skylights of coloured glass or the fall of brightness from the dome that Soane added to the building. The effort of ingenuity can be seen from the windows of the upper floors that look down onto the lower roofs, how precisely they’ve been cut into and covered with the little greenhouse shapes of metal and glass apertures. These are the busy unseen hands of the puppeteer.
Lucid and ingenious, yes, but this does not exclude more magical purposes. Architecture has rarely been without such purposes, most obviously in the construction of churches or the temples Soane studied around the Mediterranean. The architect’s purpose is by locating and designing structures to summon something into being, to make an ideal site of sacrifice or sanctuary, to collect and transmit the energies of prayer. Like many non-aristocratic professionals of his time, including Mozart, Soane was a Freemason. (The society offered an alternative network of patronage and advancement). Through its ritual and literature, Soane would have been repeatedly immersed in mysticism about Solomon’s temple and God as the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’ and the work of the stonemason as a collection of metaphors for moral virtues and brotherly cooperation.
This magical thinking about buildings, through buildings, survives for many of us in an attenuated or associated form as the summoning into existence of a perfect life with a perfect home, the scheme to install happiness with the best appurtenances in the ideal location. In Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Home Is So Sad,’ the conjuring has failed:
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
For Soane too most likely it failed. He had in many ways an unhappy life, marred by bereavements, estrangements and betrayals, before he died in the second-floor back room. Still, the house offers its cherished sensations: clouds altering the intensity of light, the chiming of a particular clock, the orderly presence of books, the subtle-featured face of Artemis. The love for such things can sometime feel to like the strongest of all, or at least the purest, most sudden and surging. What a pure passion I can feel for rain hitting a window, the trance of watching the pelting impacts and flowing clearness, the rich drumming sound. Or watching a leaf fall from a tree on a city street, twirling as it falls or sailing like a boat on air, a slight sway in its descent. When it lands with a dry click on the pavement. I can feel a pang like being in love, a furious small panic of desire.
A house, then, Sir John’s house might be a way to marry one’s beloved sensations, to cohabit with them in patterns of habit.
From the south drawing room, clear and light, the house seems to look down at Lincoln’s inn Fields through its tall, arched windows with a pleasant, comprehending, sceptical indifference, as though assured that the traffic of birds and people across that green space will never match its own inward richness. The glass-fronted bookcases either side of the windows affirm the honeycombed richness of its stored thought. Other Soane buildings share this introversion. He is not a showy architect. His exteriors are often sober and plain to the point of dullness. It is inside that are found all Soane’s poems of space and light. Another ingenuity in this house, one of the most influential, is located in the breakfast room: a domed ceiling has been fitted onto four segmental arches at the corners, a mellow, unobtrusive squaring of a circle, a harmonisation of conflicting elements. Soane performed a similar trick in his design for his wife’s tomb, a model of which can be found here. Four square columns support a low-profiled dome which rises from them like a small, wind-filled sail. This inspired Gilbert-Scott’s design for London’s red telephone boxes. The famous profile of the telephone boxes modestly elevated, Soane-inspired roofs create an impression of something more than merely functional, something established, significant, of recognised civic importance. A subliminal relation between the tomb and the telephone: messages and separation, the call to someone who isn’t there. A small structure in the place of an absence.
Death flows through the Sir John Soane Museum as it does through life, silent, unswerving. At the bass of the crypt stands the Egyptian sarcophagus of Seti I, more than three thousand years old, formed from a solid block of aragonite over nine feet long and incised with hieroglyphics, quotations from The Book Of The Gates, a guide to the soul’s journey in the afterlife. A wooden step is provided on which you can peer into the empty, decorated hollow where Seti’s body lay. When Soane took possession of the sarcophagus in 1824 he held a three-day reception for people to come and see this marvellous new addition to his collection. At the time, the scholarship did not exist to read the hieroglyphics. In 1908 the carvings were finally fully translated. The words are boomingly resonant and hieratic. Hail ye gods who tow along the boat of the lord of millions of years and bring it into the upper regions of the Tuat … and who make the soul enter into its spiritual body, let you hands be full of weapons and grasp them and make them sharp and hold chains in readiness to destroy the serpent enemy. And so on.
Elsewhere in the house there is a simpler, immediately comprehensible funerary inscription. It is found on the tombstone Sir John Soane designed for his beloved pet dog, and has in its own way, an equal power: Alas, poor Fanny!
The tomb of Seti I, Man of Set, Beloved of Ptah, Beloved One of Maat and Ra, and poor Fanny the dog, together for eternity in a London square.
Youtube Treasure #8
Just in case you haven’t seen this. Everybody should see this. It’s life-improving.
Keeping this diary has definitely altered my perceptions. I’m constantly aware of the weather now and of its incessant flow between different states. That we live inside this endless fluidity is very striking, if unsurprising - the weather is air currents and water as clouds, snow, ice, fog and so on. The diary itself relies on picking coherent durations out of this and making a verbal snapshot which should be pleasurable in itself but feels highly artificial given this endless modulation.
5 degrees. Immediate thaw. All the blue morning the sound of breaking glass as icicles dropped out of the trees onto the roof, the paving stones.
5 degrees. A walk in the park. Purring percussion of red-bellied woodpeckers among the trees. Weeping notes of the black-capped chickadees. Spring determined to happen whenever the chance arises, when heat and light levels flick the switches in bird brains and seeds. The paths sodden with thaw, with three states of water: snow, ice and flowing melt. First red-winged blackbirds in the reedbeds.
1 degree. ‘grey humps.’ (I’ve no idea what this note means. It’s all I have).
-2 degrees. Flashy sunlight. A razoring wind. When it’s strong the branches roar and their black shadows work back and forth over the ground as though trying to grasp something or to clean it away.
1 degree. Sun. Vast vacuity of the sky. My first associations with North America are of this, a raw winter emptiness producing a fierce abounding light, different to English winter’s muted clouds, a sharpness very different to the muddle of home – I always think of Geoffrey Hill’s lines: ‘sensitive and half-under a cloud, /Europe muddles her dreaming.’
2 degrees. Mostly sunny. Starlings manic in the box store car park, strutting, bickering. Over the drive test centre, the slow curves of a red-tailed hawk, tilting its sail to continue its effortless ride.