Sir John Soane's Museum in London

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Sir John Soane's Museum (often abbreviated to the Soane Museum) is a museum of architecture, and was formerly the house of the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. It holds many drawings and models of his projects and the collections of paintings, drawings and antiquities that he assembled. The Museum is located in the Holborn district of central London, England, overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.


Soane demolished and rebuilt three houses in succession on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. He began with No. 12 (between 1792 and 1794), externally a plain brick house. After becoming Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane purchased No. 13, the house next door, today the Museum, and rebuilt it in two phases in 1808-09 and 1812.

In 1808-09 he constructed his drawing office and "museum" on the site of the former stable block at the back, using primarily top lighting. In 1812 he rebuilt the front part of the site, adding a projecting Portland Stone facade to the basement, ground and first floor levels and the centre bay of the second floor. Originally this formed three open loggias, but Soane glazed the arches during his lifetime. Once he had moved into No. 13, Soane rented out his former home at No. 12 (on his death it was left to the nation along with No. 13, the intention being that the rental income would fund the running of the Museum).

After completing No.13, Soane set about treating the building as an architectural laboratory, continually remodelling the interiors. In 1823, when he was over 70, he purchased a third house, No. 14, which he rebuilt in 1823-24. This project allowed him to construct a picture gallery, linked to No.13, on the former stable block of No. 14. The front main part of this third house was treated as a separate dwelling and let as an investment; it was not internally connected to the other buildings. When he died No. 14 was bequeathed to his family and passed out of the Museum's ownership.

The Museum was established during Soane's own lifetime by a Private Act of Parliament in 1833, which took effect on Soane's death in 1837. The Act required that No. 13 be maintained 'as nearly as possible' as it was left at the time of Soane's death, and by and large that has been the case. The act was necessary because Sir John had a living direct male heir, his son George, with whom he had had a "lifelong feud" due to George's debts, refusal to engage in a trade, and his marriage, of which Sir John disapproved. He also wrote a "anonymous, defamatory piece for the Sunday papers about Sir John, calling him a cheat, a charlatan and a copyist". Since under contemporary inheritance law George would have been able to lay claim to Sir John's property on his death, Sir John engaged in a lengthy parliamentary campaign to disinherit his son via a private Act, setting out to "reverse the fundamental laws of hereditary succession". according to some. The Soane Museum Act was passed in April 1833 and stipulated that on Soane's death his house and collections would pass into the care of a Board of Trustees, on behalf of the nation, and that they should be preserved as nearly as possible exactly as they were left at that time.

Towards the end of the 19th century (1889-90) a break-through was made to re-connect the rear rooms of No. 12 (north of the courtyard) through to the Museum in No. 13 and since 1969 No. 12 has been run by the Trustees as part of the Museum, housing the research library (until 2009), offices and, since 1995, the Eva Jiricna designed 'Soane Gallery' for temporary exhibitions (until Summer 2011). The Museum's Trustees remained completely independent, relying only on Soane's original endowment, until 1947. Since that date the Museum has received an annual Grant-in-Aid from the British Government (this now comes via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). The Soane Museum is now a national centre for the study of architecture. From 1988-2005 a programme of restoration within the Museum was carried out under Peter Thornton and then Margaret Richardson with spaces such as the Drawing Rooms, Picture Room, Study and Dressing Room, Picture Room Recess and others being put back to their original colour schemes and in most cases having their original sequences of objects reinstated; Soane's three courtyards were also restored with his pasticcio (a column of architectural fragments) being reinstated in the Monument Court at the heart of the Museum. In 1997 the Trustees purchased the main house at No. 14 with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The house has now been restored (2006-09) and has enabled the Museum to expand its educational activities, to re-locate its Research Library in that house and to create a Robert Adam Study Centre where Soane's collection of 9,000 Robert Adam drawings is housed in purpose-designed new cabinets by Senior and Carmichael.

The acquisition of No. 14 enabled the Museum, under its new Director, Tim Knox, to embark on 'Opening up the Soane', an ambitious project to complete the restoration of the Museum's historic spaces, funded by the Monument Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Soane Foundation in New York and other private trusts. The Museum's architects for this major £7 million programme are Julian Harrap Architects. This project began on site in March 2011 with the first phase being the re-configuration of No. 12, moving the temporary exhibition gallery up to the first floor (with new showcases etc. designed by Caruso St John) in order to enable new reception facilities and a shop to be created on the ground floor. This phase also includes the creation of new conservation studios, to be named the John and Cynthia Fry Gunn Conservation Centre, and the installation of lifts to provide disabled access to all public parts of the building for the first time. Phase 2 will see the restoration of Soane's Private Apartments on the second floor (Bedroom, Book Room, Model Room, Oratory and Mrs Soane's Morning Room) and a final phase will provide a new Study Room at the back of No. 12 for the public to learn more about Soane and will see the restoration of Soane's ground floor Ante Room (with almost 200 works of art) and the Catacombs beneath it. This ambitious project will be completed in 2015.


Soane's will had provided for there to be a Curator, and an Inspectress (the post was created for Soane's housekeeper and close family friend Mrs Sarah Conduitt). The architectural historian Sir John Summerson was Curator of the Museum from 1945 to 1984. For much of this period he was assisted by Dorothy Stroud who served as Inspectress from 1945 to 1985.

Summerson was succeeded by Peter Thornton who moved from the Victoria and Albert Museum to take up the post. Thornton retired in 1995, and was followed by Margaret Richardson, the first woman to hold the title of Curator. She had succeeded Stroud as Inspectress in 1985, and served as Curator until 2005, with Helen Dorey as Inspectress (1995- ). Since 2005 the Director of the Museum has been Tim Knox, formerly Head Curator of the National Trust, under whose leadership the Museum has embarked on the ambitious 'Opening up the Soane' project combining the restoration of Nos 12 and 13, including a number of lost historic features, with improved visitor and conservation facilities. The 'Opening up the Soane' project also includes a programme of audience development, a new website and on-line catalogues of the collections.


The most famous spaces in the house are those at the rear of the Museum - the Dome Area, Colonnade and Museum Corridor. These are mostly toplit and provide some idea in miniature form of the ingenious lighting contrived by Soane for the toplit banking halls at the Bank of England. The ingeniously designed Picture Gallery has walls composed of large 'moveable planes' (like large cupboard doors)that allow it to house three times as many items as a space of this size could normally accommodate (the original hang in this room was reinstated in January 2011). When visiting, it is necessary to request the planes to be opened and wait for a group to gather before this is done.

The more domestic rooms of No. 13 are at the front of the house, many of them highly unusual, but often in subtle ways. The domed ceiling of the Breakfast Room, inset with convex mirrors, has influenced architects from around the world. The Library-Dining Room reflects the influence of Etruscan tombs and perhaps even gothic design in its repertoire of small pendants like those in fan vaulting. It is decorated in a rich 'Pompeian' red. The Study contains a collection of Roman architectural fragments and the two external courtyards, the Monument Court and Monk's Yard contain an array of architectural fragments, Classical in the Monument Court with its central column or 'pasticcio' representing Architecture and Gothic in the Monk's Yard, filled with medieval stonework from the Palace of Westminster.


Soane's collections included approximately 30,000 architectural drawings, ranging from a book of drawings of Elizabethan houses by John Thorpe to the largest collection anywhere of Robert Adam's original drawings as well as 9,000 from his own practice. There are also architectural models (the largest collection of cork models in Britain, more than 100 models for Soane's own buildings and 20 white plaster models of reconstructed antique buildings by Francois Fouquet). 15 of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's original sketches of Paestum hang in the Picture Room. The collection of Neoclassical sculpture includes both plaster and terracotta works by John Flaxman, Thomas Banks and others.

From the painting collection, the best known are by William Hogarth: the eight canvases of A Rake's Progress and the four of his famous political satire 'An Election' based on the Oxfordshire Parliamentary Election of 1754. There are also three major works by Canaletto.

The alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I lies in the basement of the museum in what Soane called the 'Sepulchral Chamber'. After it was installed Soane held parties on three successive evenings to celebrate its arrival, lighting it dramatically with lamps.

See also

  • Soane's country retreat Pitzhanger Manor.
  • The Dulwich Picture Gallery designed by Soane in 1811 is the archetype for modern art galleries from the Sainsbury Wing at London's National Gallery to the new Getty Center in California.
  • With its eclectic collection idiosyncratically displayed in a domestic town house, the Soane museum shares many qualities with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
  • Sir John Soane should not be confused with Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections formed the foundation of the British Museum and Natural History Museum.
  • James William Wild curator in 1880s.
  • [[Eliza Soane's pet dog 'Fanny' has inspired a children's book, 'The Journal of Mrs Soane's Dog Fanny, by Herself', by Mirabel Cecil (2010).

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