Imagine an eccentric museum where you can lose yourself in a maze of rooms and delve into a cabinet of curiosities.
There’s a childish sense of fun that comes with a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum with its surreal collection of art and antiquities housed in a labyrinth of hidden compartments and corridors.
It’s the former London home of the British architect Sir John Soane who lived here in the 1790s and amassed an eclectic collection of ancient, Renaissance and Georgian treasures.
Around every corner there a surprising object to be discovered from the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I to Sir Robert Walpole’s desk and even a wooden Egyptian mummy case.
Down in the basement it’s like exploring the underbelly of a museum with a fantastic treasure trove of storage rooms.
You can never be sure what you’re going to bump into as the rabbit warren of rooms sends you in many different and disorientating directions.
In the blink of an eyelid you can come eye to eye with Renaissance statuettes, Greek antiquities and Roman funerary urns.
So how did all this fascinating and curious collection come together?
Sir John Soane was a remarkable man. He was one of Britain’s most eccentric collectors, who built large parts of the house himself, creating and extending it room by room with hidden cabinets, secret walls and compartments.
At times the house is reminiscent of a theatrical stage set with meandering passageways and unexpected nooks and crannies.
A trip through the rooms is a treat as Hogarth masterpieces jostle with Italian statuary and antique urns to grab your attention.
Soane was renowned for outbidding London’s richest collectors to acquire and build the art collection of his dreams which he kept in his own home.
He bought 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields for £2,100 in 1792 and went on to acquire the neighbouring property at number 13 for £4,200 in 1808.
Sir John combined the two houses and started to build his vast collection which mushroomed as he acquired more and more pieces.
Before his death in 1837 he turned his home into a public museum so visitors could learn about art and antiquities.
Anyone interested in seeing the collection could write to Sir John and simply pop along for a private viewing.
He never said ‘no’ to anyone who requested a visit but always preferred visitors to view the collection on a bright day when the lighting showed off the works at their best.
Imagine turning up and being shown around his great collection of Hogarths which included the brilliant Rake’s Progress paintings.
What a treat having the man of the house show you around his London home whilst sharing a charming cup of English tea. Two hundred years on, I feel most envious!
It wasn’t long before Soane had so many works that the house resembled a great art gallery.
Eventually Soane established the house as a museum by Act of Parliament (1833) which required that the interiors should be kept as they were at the time of his death.
It was one of Britain’s first public art museums.
Today you can wander around this Regency house’s fine rooms as well as the art collection. At present the house is undergoing the final phases of restoration work with the creation of a new visitor reception, exhibition gallery and conservation studio.
There are also plans to restore some of the ‘lost’ historical elements and interiors at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields including the Catacombs, Tivoli Recess and private apartments. I can’t wait to see the hidden rooms in their full glory.
It’s fun to imagine Sir John hanging out and admiring his collection today. I’m sure that he would have been incredibly proud of his lasting legacy.
From bricks to art
So where did Sir John Soane find the money to fuel his passion for art and beautiful things?
Born in 1753, Soane was the son of a London bricklayer which makes his story even more incredible. He inherited most of his money from a relative but also enjoyed a distinguished career as an architect.
Sir John worked on many famous London buildings including Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Bank of England and the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
When Soane was appointed as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 he arranged his books, casts and models so his students would have access to them for their studies.
He would open his house for his students on the days before and after his lectures.
Friends and business associates of Sir John Soane would be invited to his extravagant parties and society occasions.
He was truly a man who loved showing off his art collection.
Soane’s influence as a collector and architect spread far and wide.
There’s also evidence that the tomb Soane built in the basement of the house influenced Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the iconic British red telephone box.
Today Sir John Soane’s story is a reminder that great collectors don’t hoard their treasures, they share them with the world. He was a true philanthropist in the broadest sense.
Soane wanted everyone to enjoy his collection as much as he did – and a trip to this remarkable museum is proof that his legacy lives on.
It’s one of my favourite museums in London – and hopefully it might become one of yours.
This is the ideal place to potter around on a drab winter’s day, but don’t forget to look out for those hidden rooms and paintings concealed behind wall panels.
You’ll need to be a bit of a detective to spot all the hidden treasures in Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Top travel tips – Sir John Soane’s Museum
The Sir John Soane Museum is located at 12-13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London.
The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00-17:00. It is closed every Sunday, Monday and bank holidays. Admission to the house and gallery is free.
The nearest Tube station is Holborn, a short walk away.
Look out for a changing programme of exhibitions at the museum. On the first Tuesday of every month the museum holds its hugely popular late night candlelit tours.
It’s an eerie and authentic experience to wander around this Regency house in the dark with only flickering candles as your guide. Get there early before the long queue snakes around the block.
The museum is currently undergoing a £7 million restoration project but it is still open as usual. Don’t forget to go back for a return visit when the restoration is complete.
Visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum photo gallery below by clicking on the images.
Images are courtesy and copyright of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.