Sir John Soane's Museum review
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 skinny little corridors trying not to knock anything over.
Sir John Soane was either a collector or a kleptomaniac. He seems to have travelled around the world and picked up every broken statue and brick he could find. Then he'd cart them back to Britain and shoehorn them in to his Georgian townhouse whether they fitted or not -- if there was an inch of wallpaper showing then he'd nail up another shelf and cement a statue to it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here... the first thing you need to know about this place is that it's totally free. You just queue up outside and patiently wait your turn which can sometimes take a while, because the house is very tight inside and they don't allow many people in at once. And they confiscate all your rucksacks and bags as well, so you don't accidentally swing them round and knock a thousand years' worth of statues off the banisters. (Which would be very easy to do!) Then you have a quick whizz through the shop and into his big rooms downstairs -- you have to pass through those before you reach the good stuff.
His Dining Room and Library are tick-tock silent (the kind of room where you can hear the clock tick-tocking in the corner). They're all bookcases and tables and a tidy line of chairs down the side. They're nice enough to look at, but you didn't come here to see these and you'll quickly forget them once you've seen the rest. Then you walk into his yellowy-lemon drawing room and see a few of his architectural paintings on the wall. Soane was an architect (he built the original Bank of England) and some of his ideas were bigger than his budget -- check out his plans for a Senate House. I love the Houses of the Parliament, but jeez... if they let him build that then we'd have been the envy of the world!
His Picture Room is where he kept the best of his paintings -- three pieces by Canaletto and a series by William Hogarth. Unfortunately he picked the worst room in the house to hang them, because there's not enough wall space to squeeze them all in. So what he decided to do was hinge some flat panels in front of the walls and then open them out like the pages of a book. Every panel has got a picture on it, and when you open it out you cover up another. It sounds totally daft, and it is daft, because these aren't ordinary paintings he's hiding on the flaps -- two of them are from Rake's Progress!
As you walk further into the house it begins to narrow down until there's barely enough room for two people to move. When you reach the colonnade around the top you'll have to hold your stomach in to squeeze past all the statues. Every wall will have a block of concrete on it (or ten blocks of concrete), ten tiles, ten statue heads, ten chiselled inscriptions, lots of pots, vases, urns, headstones and marble busts, either standing on or hanging from every spare inch of space in the place. There's not even enough room for the dust.
Some of the objects must weigh a tonne and how they're being suspended over your head is a total mystery. He's got Greek gods, Egyptian deities, Roman emperors, gargoyles, battle scenes, temples... it's totally mad. Don't come in here if you're clumsy, for chrissakes, because you'll cause thousands of pounds worth of damage. The objects are two inches from your nose, one inch from your toes, and a split-second from being knocked over the edge onto the tourists down below.
I quite like the gloom. There's not a lot of light around, and I get the impression that he didn't like the sunshine much. What little light he allowed inside he either funnelled through a skylight or used to colour up a wall through a tinted window. He's put all of his windows to work: aiming their rays like a spotlight, or turning them into a picture frame to view another room.
The gloomiest room of all is the crypt. That's where he kept his prize possession: the sarcophagus of Seti I. Giovanni Belzoni dug it up in the Valley of the Kings and then sold it to Soane for a couple of grand, and he somehow managed to manoeuvre it into his crypt (don't ask me how -- he must have folded it up). You have no choice but to stand two inches from it, because that's how much space he's left around the walls. There were six tourists crowding around it whilst I was down there today, and we were taking it in turns to move a few inches so we could shift our positions. It was like we were playing one of those sliding puzzle games. How many moves will it take before we can exit out the door?
Sir John Soane's Museum is very easy to sum up: it's definitely worth a visit. There's nowhere else like it in London.
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