Located next to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (London’s largest public square), deep in the heart of Old London is the home of the late, great neo-classical architect John Soane. In addition to being one of the most important architects of his generation, Soane was an obsessive collector, and filled his home at 13 Lincoln’s Inn fields to the brim with art and sculptures – so much art, in fact, that he ultimately had to buy and knock through both homes on either side of him to house it all.
Soane left his fastidious eye for detail and obsessive ingenious fingerprint all over his home, which remains as his greatest legacy and an unparalleled place to experience for a visit.
The home was established as a museum during Soane’s own lifetime, as a result of a private act of parliament that was passed in 1833 and took effect when he died four years later in 1837. The home passed to a board of trustees, who were instructed to ‘act on behalf of the nation’ to keep Soane’s home exactly as it was when he died. The entire museumification of the home is widely accepted to have been part of a long campaign on Soane’s part to disinherit his son George Soane, whom John was well-known to have despised.
The board of trustees managed the museum and its contents on the original endowment of funds Soane provided for 110 years, until 1947 – after which the museum has been supported by an annual grant provided by the British Government.
After the year 1988, widespread efforts to maintain and restore aspects of the home have been consistently undertaken in an effort to make the home resemble its original state. Many of the spaces on the lower floors have been restored to their original colours and the ordering and sequences of objects laid out have been restored to the same way they were on the day of Soane’s death in 1837.
John Soane’s Early Life: How the Collection Came to Be
Born on September 10th 1753, John Soane was the son of a bricklayer who managed to work his way to the very top of the profession through a lifetime of hard work and lucky breaks. After his father’s death when he was 14, Soane went to live with his brother who was friends with a land surveyor named James Peacock.
Peacock introduced Soane to his boss George Dance the Younger, an accomplished architect who was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts. Dance invited Soane to apprentice under him, and John began his training as an architect at the age of 15.
Induced to do so by his teacher, George Dance, Soane signed up to the Royal Academy and was awarded a Gold Medal in architecture, which came with the prize of a £60 stipend to go on a Grand Tour. This tour ended up being one of the most formative periods of Soane’s entire life, and he spent 2 years cavorting around Europe.
In this time he befriended a great many expats, including artists, writers, and younger British politicians and members of the aristocracy who likewise sought to become cultured by travelling through Europe and learning from the historical legacies of the Old Continent. On this trip, Soane met William Pitt, who would go on to become Prime Minister.
Much of what Soane ultimately collected in his home was a reflection of the aesthetic taste he refined on tour in Italy. He spent large swathes of time in Rome, Naples and Sicily, and was obsessed with the large palladian style temples built in Paestum by the Greeks. On this tour he would begin a collection that he would continue to expand throughout his lifetime, and which lines every wall of the museum.
After returning from abroad in 1780 Soane struggled to find commissions and work for a time, until 1783. Only 5 years after beginning his career as a commissioned architect he was appointed as head architect and surveyor for the bank of England at the remarkably young age of 35, a position which he held for the next 45 years.
This appointment was one of the great architecture positions in England at the time, and likely rankled most of the established older architects of the era. It is widely accepted that he assumed the role as a direct result of the friendship he fostered with William Pitt, a friend he had made from his Grand Tour who had just become Prime Minister of England. Soane enjoyed continued success (and the odd scandal) for the rest of his life, and spent most of his money on collecting art and expanding his home to store it all, which is where we come in.
The Soane Museum Experience
When you arrive at the museum you’ll likely see a short line out front. Don’t be alarmed by this. Because of how narrow the spaces are and how dense the displays are, the museum staggers entries by about 45 seconds or so, so that everyone has ample time to see things at their own pace.
I stood in line behind about 8 people and was inside within 5 minutes. You are not allowed to bring bags into the museum, but there is a free coat check service.
Upon entering, the first main room you’ll find yourself in is the drawing room.
While fairly normal looking at first, there are a number of features such as crenellated mouldings and curved mirrors that are designed to make the space feel bigger and more luxurious than it would otherwise.
The ceilings are covered in oil paintings and an enviable library sits behind the built in glas cabinetry.
The front of the house retains the main structure of what you might expect from a Georgian home, with a stunning breakfast room adjoining the drawing room pictured below.
The breakfast room features a canopy dome ceiling with a skylight, and inset convex mirrors. This room features two contemporary portraits of Napoleon, and a pistol that reportedly belonged to him as well (Soane was a big fan of Napoleon’s).
It overlooks the monument court and the rest of the museum. After the drawing room and the breakfast room, we enter the real ‘museum’ portion of the home.
It’s hard to give a complete account room by room of Soane’s home and harder still to believe that this space ever served as a living space given its labyrinthine nature.
The museum is characterised by a surplus of meandering dark hallways, winding narrow staircases and rooms filled top to bottom with broken bits of buildings, ancient Egyptian sculpture and all of the other miscellania Soane managed to accrue in his 83 years of life.
Sensory overload is an understatement, and given the sheer amount of stuff, it’s easy to understand why the curators were unable to label it all.
For visitors that want to know more about these objects, a guidebook is available in the lobby of the museum that goes into detail about some of the more important items in the collection, but regardless of whether you get a guidebook or not, the sheer volume and incredible attention that has been given to this collection is inescapable and frankly hard to process in a single go around.
I was sadly unable to get a spot on the tour when I went, but I still managed to spend a full two hours exploring this incredible space and I intend to go back for a tour in the near future.
At times John Soane’s museum is almost beyond description. There are some 45,000 items in his collection here. His interests range from the crenellations found on greek columns, to Chinese pottery to commemorative gem casts of obscure members of the British aristocracy (pictured below).
Below is pictured what Soane considered to be the centrepiece of his collection, the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, who was father of Ramses II (considered by many to be the greatest and most powerful Pharaoh in history).
This Sarcophagus is located in what Soane called the Sepulchral Chamber (also known as the crypt) and is one of the oldest publicly displayed artefacts in the United Kingdom. It was sold to Soane for £2000 in 1824 (close to £200,000 in today’s money) after the British Museum turned down the artefact for being too expensive.
While I cannot begin to describe everything contained in the museum and around monument court, one room that must be mentioned is the Picture Room – a space where Soane’s ingenuity is undeniable.
This room features four original paintings by William Hogarth, as well as one of three original paintings by J.M.W. Turner and a Canaletto to boot. The sheer amount of art and the limited space to put it in necessitated a mechanical solution.
To house all of these paintings Soane split two of the walls on each side of the room in half, and put them on hinges, allowing him to quadruple the total hanging space of the room.
The entire wall can be unlocked and swung out to show paintings hung on the other side, and another set of swinging wall doors is located behind it, which opens out into another atrium.
The photo below shows a curator opening up the wall to reveal the hidden paintings within. Viewings in the picture gallery occur regularly throughout the day, but do require a curator present to operate the hinged walls.
What I’ve covered here is just a fraction of what’s on offer at Sir John Soane’s Museum. This place is truly a cornucopia, and an inspiration to anyone interested in the regency period, British architecture, or indeed ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece.
With so much to see, there is undoubtedly something here for everyone, and if you get the opportunity you would be remiss not to make time for a visit to this unique building and its collection.
Hours of Operation / Pricing
The John Soane museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, the last admission time is 4:30 pm and you’ll likely want more than half an hour to explore the architectural maze within, so best to give yourself a bit of extra time! The museum is always open on bank holidays.
Entry to the museum is free of charge, and you are not required to pre-book, although it is encouraged to pre-book a slot if you’re arriving with a large group, and you will have to get in touch with the museum if you are arriving with 8 or more guests so that they can be sure to accommodate your visit.
Getting to the Museum
Sir John Soane’s Museum is located at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP.
If arriving by tube, Holborn station which is served by the Central and Piccadilly lines is a 5 minute walk away. Temple station is also nearby at a 15 minute stroll from the front door, and is serviced by the Circle and District tube lines.
This area is extremely well serviced by bus lines as well. The 1, 59, 68, 91, 168, 171, 188, 243, 521 and X68 stop close by on the Kingsway. The 8, 25, and the 242 stop on High Holborn, 5 minutes away.
If arriving by bike there are plenty of parking options available. If you’re taking Santander cycles there are two stations close by, if arriving by your own bike, there are racks available alongside Lincoln’s Inn fields.
Drivers should be aware that the museum is in central London, and within the congestion charge zone, there are some parking spaces available and green-badge bays nearby but you’d be better off taking public transport or cycling.
There are tours available at the Soane Museum. The staff at Soane’s house are all exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about the museum and its contents. The tour guides here are experts in their field.
Private Apartment Tour: Every day at 2 pm, volunteer staff members conduct a tour of John and Eliza Soane’s private apartments, on the second floor of the home. This tour lasts about 30 minutes and is available on a first come, first served basis. The staff can accommodate a group of 8 people, so be sure to plan ahead if you want to join up.
This tour is provided free of charge. If you want to join this tour, all you need to do is talk to the visitor’s assistant in the South Drawing room and they’ll add your name to the list.
Highlights Tour: The highlights tour provides a classic, well-rounded 75-minute long look at the entire museum, and will bring visitors into the world of John Soane and his life as a neo-classical architect during the regency period.
This tour highlights some of the great treasures of Soane’s vast collection, and also includes a tour of the private apartments. These tours take place at midday and cost £16. Some days have additional availability and you will need to pre-book on the Soane house website here.
Soane’s home is an eccentric and quirky space full of narrow hallways, dark passages and narrow staircases. That said, the museum has gone to great lengths to accommodate visits for those with physical impairments.
If you, or someone in your group needs special accommodation, you should call the museum 24 hours ahead of time to assure that they can prepare for the visit. The museum has two custom made, narrow wheelchairs that have been specifically made to fit through all the narrow causeways in the home.
Specially trained staff are also at hand to guide guests with visual impairments as well. A lift has been installed but needs to be operated by a staff member, so it’s best to let them know you’re coming so that someone is available to help.
You can reach the staff at: 020 7405 2107, or email them at email@example.com