I still have to mention two more museums we visited in London last month which are associated with famous people. The first is Sir John Soane’s house (or rather three houses which he knocked together into one large studio and living quarters in Lincoln’s Inn fields). Soane, (1753-1837), belongs to that class of architects which bestride the late eighteenth century neo-classical style with the rise of the first gothick revival. However, he is much more original than any form of eclecticism and could be compared favourably with the French architect Boullée and the Italian from our own parts around Lucca, Nottolini.
The greatest monument to Soane’s wildly original genius is his own extraordinary house which encloses the most diverse ambiences, from the domed breakfast room, to the vaulted depth of king Seti I’s magnificent alabaster sarcophagus, discovered by Belzoni, (resting not just in majesty but in mystery since no-one can yet decipher the hieroglyphics on it with any certainty), to the eerie gloom of the gothick monk’s library and which is, throughout, tricked out with space-expanding mirrors. This is surely one of the most extraordinary architects’ houses on the planet and comprises all those features which Soane put into his public buildings and grander mansions.
In London it’s still possible to visit his country house, Pittshanger, now in the suburb of Ealing. Sadly, Soane’s greatest achievement the bank of England, with its noble Piranesian interior halls, was utterly wrecked by Bakers’ reconstruction in the twentieth century and only the windowless curtain wall gives a little idea of its original appearance.
Two Soaneian features: top-lighting and a characteristic shallow segmented arch have come to be regarded as important features in the best modern architecture. The segmented arch is, of course, an inspiration for the roof of London’s iconic red telephone box, the few remaining of which are now listed monuments. Top lighting, which Soane appreciated in some of Rome’s most spectacular buildings (including, of course, the Pantheon, his favourite structure of all time, and also some of that city’s spectacularly lit baroque statues, like Bernini’s ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria) has become a standard feature in art galleries where wall space is at a premium and lighting from above is able to display colour values at their truest.
Indeed, Soane’s little masterpiece, the Dulwich (College Picture) Gallery, constructed in 1811-14 to hold the bequest of paintings donated to my old school, is a perfect miniature compendium of most of this great architect’s motifs and ideas. It’s also the world’s first purpose-built art gallery and the most charming gem in the crown of London’s galleries. The building is neo-classical inspiration with decorative Greek keys and Vitruvian proportions. The pictures are lit from skylights and the mausoleum of benefactor Desenfans, who donated the pictures to my school (pictures originally meant to form part of the collection of the king of Poland whose country was unfortunately tri-parted between Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia before he could receive them) contains the characteristic shallow arches and dim religious light (in this case a beautiful amber yellow) which has always had a strong emotional effect on me.
It is in this picture gallery that the Linley portraits are collected. The subject of one of them, Thomas Linley, the “English Mozart” who sadly died at the age of only 22 not without already having composed a handful of masterpieces will form the basis of my talk to the university of the Third Age at Bagni di Lucca next week.
Sir John Soane’s house, which he intended as a free a museum, is also an art gallery in its own right famously containing Hogarth’s sequence of paintings, “The Rake’s Progress”. Inspiring Stravinsky’s opera, the paintings have even more relevance in today’s ultra-materialist age where the futile pursuit of mammon so often leads if not to the madhouse (the ones formerly in London all appear to have been, appropriately turned into luxury residences for these pursuers when it was considered inappropriate to house inmates in large institutions) then to suicide or even assassination.
All in all this always remains for me one of the most fascinating house-museums I’ve ever visisted. Judge for yourselves in these pictures: