Friday, September 14, 2012

Sir John Soane - At Home With an Eccentric Genius.

Sir John Soane - At Home With an Eccentric  - by Grace Elliot.

...Or "Padre Giovanni has come to visit."

The Bank of England - designed by architect, John Soanes
(not that this impressed my teenage son.)
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Sir John Soane's museum, however I went alone. Despite my best efforts, I totally failed to convince my teenage sons to come with me. The trouble was, I approached things from the wrong angle. When my youngest asked "Who was John Soane?" to encourage him along I tried the hard sell.
"John Soane was the famous Georgian architect who designed the Bank of England."
My son remained blank faced so I tried again.
"He was a famous collector and eccentric who filled his home with classical artefacts and fabulous paintings."

Portrait of John Soane by Chantry.

To his credit my son tried to look disappointed as he excused himself by saying he needed to bathe his bearded dragon (which in all fairness, he did then do) - so I went alone.

But on my return it was a different story as I gushed with enthusiasm over what I had seen.
"It was an amazing place; Soane's built light-wells into the house and used stained glass in orange and yellows, so the rooms appear to glow."
My elder son, an art student, perked up and started to listen, as I explained in more detail.

Sir John Soane's house / museum is the cream coloured building on the left.

Numbers 12 -14 Lincoln's Inn Field were the home of influential Georgian architect, Sir John Soane (no, don’t switch off, I promise it will get more interesting) and what I hadn't realised before my visit, was just how excitingly eccentric the great man was. I went unprepared for the sheer scale of the collection crammed into his home. Artefacts press in from all sides, no wall space or flat surface unoccupied and yet everything is in perfect harmony and order. The sheer weight of marble cornices, capitals, friezes and plaques mounted on the walls set me wondering about the danger of collapse.

Soane's breakfast room.

Soane, his wife and their two sons and lived in the house / museum much as it appears today: Greek and Roman marbles line the stairwells, a full sized Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement, a room of Hogarth's mounted on hinged walls. In the basement, Soanes created an atmosphere reminiscent of catacombs or Roman burial chamber, of which the centre piece was the magnificent Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I; bought by Soanes when the British Museum refused to pay 2,000 pounds for it. With hieroglyphics as yet deciphered in his time, and a very important antiquity, Soanes celebrated the arrival of his new piece with three evening parties, illuminated by three hundred oil lamps and attended by nearly a thousand people.

Soane's Sarcophagus room - and yes, it is as mad
as this!

Mrs Soane must have had the patience of a saint to put up with the stamp of her husband's overwhelming personality, but by all accounts they were a happy couple. A mark of Soane's eccentricity was his 'Monk's Parlour.' This was a downstairs room designed in a gothic fashion, with dark sombre colours and heavy furniture to illustrate the importance of light (or lack of it) in creating atmosphere. What is even more delightful is that when Soane wanted to be alone he would claim:

"Padre Giovanni has come to visit," and disappear into the Monk's Parlour to take tea. However since Padre Giovanni was fictitious, actually a play on Soane's own name 'John' - his visits were an excuse to enjoy solitude.

Inside the Bank of England - an example of how
Soanes used light so effectively.

The moral of this story is that sometimes the plaudits of history can blind us to the personalities who create it. No dry as dust exhibition of worthy achievements can ever set the imagination alight to the wonders of the past, quite so much as a glimpse into the mind of the people who inspired them.

About Grace Elliot.
Grace leads a double life as a veterinarian by day, and author of historical romance by night.
Her love of history, romance and ....cats reflected in her blog:
Fall in Love With History :
Her latest release is HOPE'S BETRAYAL -
One wild, winter's night two worlds collide.
Known for his ruthless efficiency, Captain George Huntley is sent to stamp out smuggling on the south coast of England. On a night raid, the Captain captures a smuggler, but finds his troubles are just beginning when the lad turns out to be a lass, Hope Tyler.
With Hope as bait, the Captain sets a trap to catch the rest of the gang. But in a battle of wills, with his reputation at stake, George Huntley starts to respect feisty, independent Hope. Challenged by her sea-green eyes and stubborn loyalty Huntley now faces a new threat - his growing attraction to a sworn enemy. But a love where either Hope betrays her own kind, or Captain Huntley is court-marshaled, is not an easy destiny to follow.


  1. Grace you've done it again:-) I adore your blogs. Thanks for sharing this with us. x Hugs my friend and lots of love x

    1. You are a very generous person, Elizbeth, too kind - but dont ever change.
      Grace x

  2. I learned about him when I studied architecture at A level. He's left us some lovely work.But - I thought his name was Soane, without the final S?

    1. Sue, you are absolutely correct. I had 'Soane's Museum' echoing round my head and in my enthusiasm to write the post, this got converted to Soanes. Kicking myself for making such a stupid, stupid mistake.
      Thank you for commenting,
      Grace x

  3. I wonder if Sir John Soane's sons had an appreciation of the wonderful environment in which they grew up? And what a remarkable and generous man there father was?
    Great post!
    Thanks for sharing!: - )

    1. From what I remember reading at the museum, his sons were very ungrateful. The elder, who Soane's had high hopes of following in his footsteps, became a writer (!) and used his talent to write disparaging articles about his father.
      I have a feeling (could be completely wrong) that neither boy lived past their 20's.
      Thanks so much for commenting- and now I can't rest until I've checked what happened to his boys!
      G x

  4. Thank you for leaving a comment and so glad you enjoyed the post.
    Grace x


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