Monday, 16 February 2015

A Valentine's visit to the Soane Museum

I am not a fan of your stereotypical Valentine's Day. Wonky-eyed teddies clutching nylon love-hearts and the endless sea of red and pink makes my inner cynic sneer at all those who fall for the gift marketers' cheap ploys. My, but there is so much tat out there. (And is it me or is the holiday getting bigger and bigger every year?) Polythene-wrapped red roses? Not for me, thanks. Petals and candle-light, non merci. But time to explore another corner of this city, with a great guy and a cheeky pizza, that's more my idea of a fine day. 
February 14th this year was a pretty grey and gloomy day, but we headed out and down to Holborn, dodging the drizzle. We pottered through relatively quiet backstreets until we crossed over High Holborn - still whirling and filled with tourists even on a Saturday morning - and down into Lincoln's Inn Fields. London has a fine array of squares - ringed by mansion houses and usually containing a wide green space in the centre - but Lincoln's Inn Field is the largest in London. Fortunately for us Londoners, the fields themselves are also now a public space, so we get to enjoy them, rather than them being locked away for the sole use of the owners of the nearby houses.

Hidden amongst the trees and paths through the fields are a group of tennis courts. Surprisingly most of them were in vigorous use, even on that chilly, soggy Saturday. But what made my heart lift, more than the summery pop of tennis balls, was the sight of a cosy bar and kitchen, beside the tennis courts - Fields. Through the window, I spied a flame inside and gravitated towards the place in the hope of wood-fired pizza. And we were not disappointed. Speedy service (no tennis pun intended), decent pizza, and a good if overpriced salad, provided us with a restorative lunch, and the chance to watch the tennis-players getting rained on, and a range of fellow lunchers both celebrating and entirely ignoring Valentine's Day. But this was just a pit-stop for us, to fuel us both for a visit to somewhere special, and a bit of a wait to get inside. As the rain came down harder, we left the welcome dry of Fields and headed back out onto the square. 

Along the northern edge of Lincoln's Inn Fields is an extremely distinguished looking row of houses. Three of these houses were bought and remodelled in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Sir John Soane, a celebrated architect who designed the Bank of England (alas, not much of his original design remains) and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which led the way in art gallery design in the early nineteenth century. Yet arguably one of his greatest legacies to the city in which he lived and reimagined the landscape was his former town residence at 13, Lincoln's Inn Fields - now The Soane Museum.

Similar in some aspects to Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields, many of the rooms inside Soane's former house remain exactly as he left them. And, boy, did he leave them filled with things. The museum is so full, and its materials so fragile, that, as you wait outside to be allowed in museum assistants hand out plastic bags for visitors to put all of their belongings into, lest a stray bag strap snag a curtain or bash into a marble fragment. Visitors are admitted to the Soane Museum, like animals on Noah's Ark - two by two. The museum can only hold about 80 people at any one time, due to its fine interiors and narrow passageways, so hopeful visitors must wait their turn, in rain or shine. Fortunately, the kindly staff at the Soane Museum are well-practiced in the art of crowd control, and as we huddled in the teeming rain, an attendant zoomed out into the square with a clutch of golf umbrellas under her arm, and swiftly distributed them to keep us all dry while we waited. 

But we were fortunate, and after only ten or fifteen minutes out in the square, we were admitted to Soane's house. Amazingly, for an old house open to the public, the place was toasty warm, which was either something to do with cleverly concealed central heating or the number of people in close proximity to us throughout the house. As we made our way round the extraordinary rooms, we squeezed and breathed in, to let people in and out; all of us shuffling round each corner of the house like pieces in a little sliding jigsaw puzzle.

Soane was clearly a collector in the most extreme meaning of the word. Every inch of his walls is covered in books, painting, models and an astonishing collection of marbles and casts; from tiny antechambers and corridors, to vaulted-ceilinged drawing rooms and panelled libraries. Yet despite the sheer number of things, each is placed in its spot tidily and precisely, in a way that manages to convey careful curation rather than haphazard hoarding. Uniquely, the terms of an Act of Parliament that Soane negotiated ensured that on his death the house was preserved as a collection for everyone, as near as possible to the condition in which he left it. 

Soane's house is filled with windows. The architect made clever use of light and mirrors to make the rooms seem as large as possible, despite their extensive contents. And through several windows the visitor can see out onto the current phase of conservation underway in the museum - aiming to restore the museum and building to the exact layout of the place at the time of Soane's death. It will be a remarkable thing when it is completed. Illustrated hoardings inform visitors that the final stage of this work is underway to restore the magnificent 'catacombs' beneath the house, in which many of Soane's great marbles are stored, including a great number of classical busts and a sizeable Egyptian sarcophogus covered in hieroglyphics.  

Up above this remarkable crypt space is an even more surprising room. At initial glance the Picture Room looks, well, just like a small room covered in pictures. But the room is TARDIS-like. Thanks to two layers of concealed doors, the room opens up and up, revealing greater gilded frames and even two hidden galleries, again, stuffed with architectural designs (some realised, some which never came to fruition), more bits of marble and even models of Soane's buildings. The museum's attendants - one of whom we encountered in the Picture Room - were all extremely passionate about this place, and the collections within it. Each patiently talked visitors through every room with such knowledge and interest, that it was hard not to be infected by their enthusiasm.

I would happily move into 13, Lincoln's Inn Fields, if only for Soane's yellow drawing rooms on the first floor. Bright and light, the rooms would be a fine place to sit and chat, or better still, write. Glass-fronted bookshelves are cunningly tucked into slim cases beside the windows, lining a hidden walk behind heavy silk curtains, from where the lady of the house might keep a close eye on the goings-on down below on the square. We snuck in and peered out at the ever-growing queue outside, and felt grateful to be dry and warm within.

As he was so careful to pass on teachings from his architectural practice, much is known about Soane's processes and clients, as well as his finished works. The museum currently houses a small but fascinating exhibition of Soane's business, containing designs, letters to clients, instructions from clients and even the plans for his previous residence, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing. Soane apparently had great hopes that his two sons would follow him into architecture, but when they decided against their father's profession, he turned his educational aims elsewhere, establishing his museum for the benefit of anyone interested in architecture and art. Lucky for us that he did.

Sadly - but entirely understandably - due to the delicate interiors and artwork, no photography is allowed inside the museum. So, I can't share any photographs with you. You'll just have to go and see it for yourself...

13, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP (nearest Tube station is Holborn, on the Piccadilly Line)
Opening hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays 10am-5pm, last entry 4.30pm.
Closed: Sundays, Mondays and Bank Holidays
Entry is free (really, truly, you must go!)
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