YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An Odd London Museum Fascinates

January 19, 1986|ED SHEEHAN | Sheehan is a Honolulu free-lance writer. and

LONDON — Old Sir John Soane liked his mongrel dog, Fanny, more than he did his son, George.

Fanny did not criticize the famed architect's work in the London newspapers, but George did. Sir John even turned down a hereditary peerage for one that would expire with him, so George would not inherit a title.

No one knows where George is buried, but Fanny is under an imposing stone spire inscribed: "Alas, Poor Fanny," in the fascinating home/museum Soane willed to England when he died in 1837.

Except for a brace of marble Greek maidens gracing its facade, No. 13 Lincolns Inn Fields looks much like other houses overlooking the wooden square in the heart of legal London. A few minutes' walk away are the human beehives of The Strand, Holborn and Kingsway. Milton, Tennyson and Nell Gwynn lived here, and the pleasant park area has a history as a dueling ground and the haunt of thieves.

Designed in 1792

Soane designed the house about 1792 and lived in it for 24 years, collecting and arranging the paintings, sculpture, prints, books and antiquities that make it one of the most unusual of Britain's 1,600 museums.

Here is a collection of delightful surprises, the lifetime acquisitions of a human pack rat with generous means and impeccable taste. Sir John, who designed the Bank of England, government buildings in Whitehall and many country manors, was also something of a magician.

Through the clever employment of arches, mirrors and light he created illusions of space enabling him to display thousands of treasures in an area that can be walked in minutes. This is a museum for people who don't usually like museums. Admission is free and visitors are greeted by a butler-like guard.

The enthrallment starts immediately in the dining room and adjoining library with their painted ceilings, 18th-Century furniture, rare books, portraits and Grecian and Oriental urns. Great care has been taken to restore surroundings as they were in Soane's time.

With soft light glowing in from the leafy squares, the chambers lack only the presence of the host entertaining celebrated contemporaries such as Turner, Johnson, Garrick or Nash.

Corridors are draped to the ceilings with busts, gem seals, Greco-Roman fragments, miniature oils and watercolors. The Picture Room is a marvel. In the space of a two-car garage, enough precious paintings are gathered to fill a gallery five times its size. The offerings are not only hung to the ceiling, but are hinged to reveal other oils, prints and Soane's own architectural renderings.

Rarities of Art

Most prominently featured are the eight paintings of Hogarth's celebrated "Rake's Progress" and the four canvases of his "Election" series. Scattered elsewhere are landscapes and portraits by Turner, Canaletto, Watteau and Reynolds, infinite riches in tiny rooms.

At one's fingertips everywhere are rarities of art and history in stone, canvas, wood and bronze. The Breakfast Room, Dome and Colonnade are packed with pieces evoking glories of the English Renaissance and ancient splendors of Rome, Greece and the Nile.

At basement level is the Monk's Parlour, a "Gothick" fantasy built around an imaginary padre whose "tomb" and "ruins" can be seen through a window. Nearby is the outdoor Monument Yard with Fanny's spire dominating others, and the Catacombs, with its urns and busts of Gallo-Roman origin and an altar to Hercules.

But the most arresting display in Soane's amazing mini-museum is the sarcophagus of Seti I, discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 1917. The massive alabaster coffin is nine feet long and four wide, carved from a solid block of stone that was once milky white.

It is incised with thousands of hieroglyphics extolling Osiris and Ra, and is wondrous to behold. The stunning receptacle was offered first to the British Museum, which turned it down. Soane ponied up 2,000 for the now-priceless piece and held a three-day reception in its honor, attended by the cream of London's art and social worlds.

Architectural Library

Sir John would find his remarkable home much as he left it. Students and aficionados are drawn to its extensive architectural library, but with scant publicity its principal rooms are rarely crowded.

Across the street in Lincolns Inns Fields, shop girls, law clerks, barristers and vagrants take the sun at noon or brown-bag lunch on a glowing green.

The Soane Museum is quite inconspicuous. Except for the stone Greek ladies outside its second-floor windows, there is no hint of the heady potpourri of art and artifacts within, the immense gift of a crotchety old man who liked his pooch better than his son.

Los Angeles Times Articles