Stepping into Sir John Soane’s Museum is to step back in time.
Or so the volunteer at the entrance claims. As it turns out, he is absolutely right.
The London home of architect, antiquarian and collector Sir John Soane has been preserved almost exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1837. Whilst the world on the street outside has altered almost beyond recognition, Soane’s townhouses stand immune.
Where horses and carriages once trotted and rolled in the midst of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, black cabs now buzz, businessmen stride, mobiles clutched to their ears, and teenagers stroll, hand in hand, neon headphones blaring out the latest tunes.
To stumble up the smooth stone steps, to pause in the dim hallway, to raise one’s eyes to the intricately decorated ceilings of these Georgian rooms is to immerse oneself in the stillness of a house which stands much as it did on the day when Soane last left it, almost one hundred and eighty years ago.
Though volunteers wait in each room and fellow visitors whisper amongst themselves as they marvel at treasures drawn from all across the globe, the feeling that the house’s rightful owner could walk in at any moment, to pull up a chair at his breakfast table beneath the painted oculus, or to discuss his sketches of London’s proposed Senate House and Triumphal Arch, is inescapable.
Soane’s presence permeates. Having entrusted his home, by order of Parliament prior to his death, to remain a public museum in perpetuity, Soane lived amidst his collections — Hogarth’s masterpieces, an Egyptian sarcophagus, rare leather-bound volumes and countless breath-taking artefacts — artfully arranged for those he invited to peruse this living museum in which he carried out his existence.
Here, handbags are left at the entrance (only to be taken swiftly to the cloakroom by the highly efficient volunteers) and phones must be switched off, to preserve, in the age of Instagram and selfies, the wonder of genuine revelation.
Countless surprises, trompe l’œils and tricks reveal themselves to the curious wanderer. The Soane Museum prides itself one being one of a kind and does not, for instance, use the labels found in most display collections. Hence, visitors are encouraged to think a little more, to ponder what they are seeing and to contemplate the possibilities before them.
Luckily for us, brimming with unasked questions as we tiptoe from room to astonishing room, the many staff are eager to engage the intrigued explorer in discussion, themselves fascinated by Soane and his legacy.
Behind the seemingly innocuous green doors of one of London’s smart Georgian townhouses lies an entire world awaiting discovery. To tell you much more would be to ruin the enchantment and the surprise, to do a disservice to this house where time stands still – and to Sir John Soane himself.
Suffice to say, it’s an afternoon well spent. Let us leave the spell unbroken.
To find out more, visit soane.org
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER