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13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP

13 Lincoln's Inn Fields was built by Sir John Soane, R.A. to house his collection of antiquities and also as a home for himself and his family. Soane actually demolished and rebuilt three houses in succession on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields, beginning with No 12 between 1792 and 1794, moving on to No 13, re-built in two phases in 1808-9 and 1812, and concluding with No. 14, rebuilt in 1823-24. The facade of the museum, with its loggia, clean lines and re-used medieval masonry looks almost art-deco in style. Soane was renowned for his use of light, form and space, this house certainly shows off his skills. The house contains amazing use of light wells and sightlines allowing natural light to filter through the entire house. Some parts feel open and airy but others are deliberately dark and close, most notably the Monk's Parlour. Parts of the loggia windows were originally in stained glass, which would have lead to a remarkable light effect in the main drawing room, but unfortunately the glass was bomb damaged during World War 2. Having been severely disappointed by his sons, Soane decided that the house should be a museum for 'amateurs and students'. It remains so today, effectively owned by the Government, but under the stewardship of a board of Trustees.

On Soane's appointment to the post of Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, he began to arrange his collections so students could have easy access to them, and opened his house to students of the Royal Academy the day before and the day after his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane's collection was being referred to as an 'Academy of Architecture'.

The Collections

The museum has a large collection of Egyptian, Greco-Egyptian and Roman antiquities, as well as paintings, architectural drawings (over 40,000!), and Soane's personal effects, papers and library. It is one of the best-documented buildings and collections in the world with almost every item having a provenance and usually a story to it. I would love to mention everything in the collection, but these are my personal favourites:

  • The Sarcophagus of Seti I c.1370BC with fragments of its Canopic vase from the tomb of Seti I - which looks like a giant Egyptian bathtub to me.
  • The Ephesian Diana: a 2nd Century Roman version of the celebrated cult statue of Diana at Ephesus.
  • Hogarth's A Rake's Progress and An Election series. These are series of 6 paintings showing details from firstly the life of a young man who suddenly inherits a large sum of money and secondly a corrupt election of the time. The details in them are fantastic, and every little thing in the picture adds to the story being told.
  • The movable panels. Soane designed a system for displaying his pictures in his gallery, the walls lift out and fold back, revealing more on the reverse and the wall behind which then folds out again...

The charm of the museum comes from the fact that it is completely original, nothing has been changed to the layout or contents since the Regency period, when any gentleman interested in art and antiques would have his own collection. The house is packed floor to ceiling with items, leaving very little space for visitors, making you feel either like Indiana Jones when you're in the cellar with the Egyptian collection, or like J.M.W. Turner dropping in for tea to discuss his next painting.

Basically, please go and see this museum, if only for a complete contrast to the stale white boxes which constitute a museum nowadays.

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