This Architect’s House Will Leave You Reeling With Wonder

The Bank of England bears little resemblance to the neoclassical complex credited to British architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837). It’s a landmark, sure, but merely one that helps you navigate through the City of London—nothing that begs to be studied as an architectural work of art. That’s because Soane’s original design for the bank—enlargements, renovations, and original designs that occupied him for 30 years—was mostly undone in a disastrous 20th-century renovation that architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, in the 20th century.”

Soane had no say about the ultimate fate of his clients’ buildings, but when it came to his own property, he exerted as much control as he could muster with an eye to posterity.

Not content to use his last will and testament to protect his London home, which also housed his studio and his vast collection of antiquities, Soane exerted his influence to push through a Private Act of Parliament establishing his house as a museum and ensuring that the property and its contents would be open to the public and remain “as nearly as possible to the state in which he shall leave it.” 

Which brings us to one of the most amazing houses in London—or anywhere, for that matter: No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the heart of modern London, on the north side of the U.K. capital’s largest public square.

Unless you are familiar with Soane’s other work—the Downing Street dining rooms at nos. 10 & 11, Banqueting House, Royal Hospital Chelsea, and more churches, estates, and manors than one cares to read about—you might unwittingly pass on the exquisitely incomprehensible Sir John Soane’s Museum at No. 13. An understandable decision, given the museum’s posh but conventional facade—that “as nearly as possible to the state in which he shall leave it” means little or no helpful signage out front. But inside lies a hidden trove of paintings, Soane’s architectural models in his private quarters, and even the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I (d. 1279 B.C.).

And it’s all displayed in a house designed to fool, beguile, and delight you from skylight to cellar. The posh row of three houses that he converted to one building serving as the enigmatic architect’s private residence, workspace, and rental properties remain as he left them, under the protection of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Soane, the son of a bricklayer was born Sept. 10, 1753 in Goring-on-Thames. After his father’s death, Soane moved to London to attend the Royal Academy, where education was free. Awarded a Grand Tour for his Gold Medal in architecture, he spent two years roaming Europe with particular interest in then remote Sicily and Malta. 

His tour also kindled his lifelong passion for collecting art. Over the next half-century he amassed about 45,000 unique pieces: Chinese pottery, ancient and medieval sculpture, architectural remnants, Greek and Roman busts, clocks, furniture, many of which are displayed at the museum. Just looking at the objects he collected kindles sensory overload. But the house where they are placed is also nothing short of magical. The best part of the museum is the home itself. If it feels like an architect’s training ground or laboratory, that’s because much of what Soane designed was first attempted at home. 

Given the tight perimeters of row houses, Soane had to build tall, not wide. The result is an illogical and disorienting floor plan. It has the ocular discombobulation of a 19th-century funhouse—but with the taste of an antiquarian who knows the value of his collection. Without any knowledge going in—I couldn’t find a native familiar with the place—there was a sense of missing something. At first glance, it’s a packed museum with no attention to hang style. Sculptural masterpieces and paintings seem to be hung where they fit, especially in the Dome Area where Soane’s bust faces off with the adjacent Apollo Belvedere cast. 

Trick mirrors above bookshelves in the dining room create the mirage of an adjacent room. Elsewhere convex mirrors manipulate room size like fisheye lenses or nautical windows into other worlds. The majesty of the museum is in its ceilings and use of glass. The domed ceiling in the Breakfast Parlor is painted to appear higher but is wide and flat like a diaphragm. The painted glass behind it adds an infinite quality to the space while making it feel cozy. Natural light floods the Breakfast Parlor through the large window overlooking Monument Court.

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