Philobiblon: Soane's renaissance

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Soane's renaissance

Yesterday afternoon to Sir John Soane's Museum on Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is one of those wonderfully idiosyncratic, personal collections, maintained much as he left it in the early 19th century, that have a charm no professionally curated exhibition can match.

My favourite area was "the crypt", done up to feel like a mausoleum, packed with mainly Roman funerary monuments and plaster models of "modern" graves, but at its centre is the spectacular stone sarcophagus of Seti I, carved from a single piece of calcite.

It is enclosed in its own glass carriage, complete with wheels, which is presumably how it arrived in 1824, when Soane bought it after the British Museum declined to pay the discoverer, Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strongman and "archaeologist" (they don't make 'em like that any more), the £2,000 he wanted for it.

You can just imagine it being formally wheeled into place, with Soane and his invited guests (1,000 came over three evenings) watching by the light of candles and lamps - more than a little spooky.

You'd think someone would have painted the scene, but the museum attendants didn't think so. A web search produces a catalogue of the museum, which indicates there is a folder of 53 drawings of the sarcophagus by Joseph Michael Gandy, an employee of Soane's, but I have a feeling these may be recordings of the item itself, rather than of its arrival.

Soane died in 1837, so living, just, into the Victorian era. It is interesting, however, that this is very much a Renaissance house - everything is assembled on the basis that the ancients, particularly the Greeks and Romans, are the model from which all inspiration should spring. I suspect by the time of his death Soane was very old-fashioned, but it is still a reminder how close we are to a time when the past was seen as more advanced than the present.


Blogger Liam said...

I've been there!
You missed mentioning one of the other odd things about Soane---that he designed a tomb which was later used as the design for those famous 'Red' telephone boxes.
The crypt was pretty impressive, but for my money the infinitely-folding room of display paintings made the house a must-see.
They certainly don't make public intellectuals like Soane anymore.

3/24/2005 01:57:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks Liam! Didn't know about the phone boxes. I found a bit more here - it was his wife's tomb on which it was based.
And I know what you mean about the picture room - like most of the rest of the house it is a great model for fitting an awful lot into a small space.

3/25/2005 02:06:00 pm  

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