Candlelight tour of Sir John Soane's Museum From Sir John Soane’s Museum Holborn
As well as designing some of London’s most important buildings, like the original Bank of England, Sir John Soane also had a passion for collecting ancient artefacts and displaying them in his Georgian townhouse.
By the time of his death he had assembled an unrivalled collection of objects from around the world: books, paintings, sculptures and ceramics, and even an ancient Egyptian sarcophagi from the Valley of the Kings.
The cramped and claustrophobic state of his home has made it one of the most interesting museums in London.
The Picture Room contains three works by Canaletto (one of which is considered a masterpiece), and several scenes from William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress.
His Drawing Room contains some architectural paintings and plans for Soane’s own buildings, and there’s a collection of private papers from the library of Robert Adam.
The museum’s most celebrated object takes pride of place in the atmospheric crypt: the sarcophagus of Seti I. This dates from around 1370 BC and is one of the most important funerary objects outside of Egypt.
He also had a cast collection comparable to the V&A’s, with reproductions of statues, sculptures and death masks.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
A word of advice: If you see some people milling around outside then don’t walk through the door, or the guide will lambast you for jumping the queue. Sir John Soane’s Museum must be the only museum in London where you actually have to queue outside for ten minutes before they even let you through the front door.
Several people fell foul of this rule whilst I was waiting, but once you get inside you realise why they do it: the house is so cramped and pokey that they can only fit about fifty people in it!
The first room you enter is the dining room with a few bookcases and tables and chairs, but it’s the rooms you’ll see later that’ll actually remember. The walls are covered with shelves and hooks and anything else that can display an ancient piece of broken brick. This guy was a kleptomaniac. He’s picked up bits of concrete from Egypt, Greece, Italy and everywhere else on earth. He’s got millions and bazillions of vases, statues, heads, cups, plates, rocks and boxes stacked up from floor to ceiling in every room of the house.
Imagine if they tried to cram the contents of the British Museum into a three-storey townhouse, and that will give you some idea about what this place is like inside. If you’re a cleaner by trade, then trust me when I say you don’t want to do the dusting in this house, because it will keep you busy for the rest of your life.
A few rooms into the tour and you’ll come across the first real treasures: paintings by Canaletto and Hogarth hanging in the Picture Room. But that’s where the building lets him down, because he must have thirty-odd paintings crammed into a space no bigger than my shed.
He’s tried to fix the problem by installing a load of fold-out flap-panels on the walls, so he can have lots of different paintings on show, but I couldn’t really see the Canaletto because the guide had another panel open that was covering it up. And there’s no room to move around a better view, either – there were only six people in the room and it was chocablock cheek-to-cheek.
After that you come to a great little room that looks down onto the sarcophagus of Seti I. The balcony around it is crammed with knick-knacks overhanging the edge but luckily they are all cemented into place to stop them falling off, otherwise somebody stumbling would crash the whole lot down on the poor buggers below.
When you get down into the crypt you can see the sarcophagus up close. It doesn’t really look like an old Egyptian tomb though, because it’s bright white and covered in symbols that you can’t see until you get up close. And the whole tomb is entombed in a tight-fitting glass box. The walls are no more than a foot away from your face, so you can’t really stand back for a decent view.
And that’s the biggest problem with this place… but also its charm: the closeness of everything. The path around the balcony, for example, is so small and skinny that you have to wait for people to walk past before you can continue. If you want to stop and look down for a minute then you’ll quickly have a load of other people bunching up behind.
But it’s certainly worth a look, just so you can see how he’s arranged the place.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Sir John Soane’s Museum “Whenever I visit Sir John Soane’s Museum I’m always reminded of those old cop show episodes where they beat on a front door and get no answer, so they shoulder-barge it open and find a skyscraper stack of newspapers piled up behind it. Ten years’ worth of papers and magazines all tied up in string, and a mountain of carrier bags stuffed inside more bags, all packed with the tat they couldn’t bear to throw away. And buried somewhere in the rubbish will be a dead body… we’ll that’s what this place is like, even down to the dead body (there’s a sarcophagus in the basement). That’s the claustrophobic feeling I get when I’m inching down the… continued.”
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If you enjoy visiting Sir John Soane’s Museum then try the Leighton House Museum as well. You can find some more Egyptian objects at the British Museum and Petrie Museum. There’s a better collection of casts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and some more Canaletto’s at the National Gallery. You’ll find some more Hogarth’s at Tate Britain.
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