London has preserved the homes of many of its famous residents, such as that of Charles Dickens and the Benjamin Franklin house. One local favorite is often overlooked by out-of-towners because its owner has been all but forgotten outside of England.
Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was the most celebrated architect of his day. He worked on numerous important commissions such as the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery, and many aristocratic mansions. Sadly, his Neo-Classical style went out of fashion and many of his buildings were demolished or radically altered in the early 20th Century.
His best-known building is the one he designed for himself. Located in central London, even from the street you can tell it’s different than most buildings of the period. It’s more open, with big arched windows, Classical-style statues, and a multilayered design quite unlike the flat, rectangular look of most buildings of its day.
It’s the inside, though, that’s really different. Rather than some stuffy old house with a few dull displays about its famous-but-now-decomposing owner, Soane’s house is jam-packed with art and antiquities. Soane was a devoted collector. In one room, the walls are covered floor to ceiling in paintings, and the walls open up like giant cabinets to reveal more paintings. Hogarth’s original paintings of “The Rake’s Progress” are here, along with many works from Soane’s good friend J.M.W. Turner.
Soane loved all things Classical, so much of the space in other rooms is filled with ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and casts. Every now and then something from another culture shows up looking oddly out of place – a steer’s skull from the American Southwest, a collection of Bronze Chinese figurines and the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I.
%Gallery-162486%The interior of the house is a genius of design. Despite the small rooms and narrow corridors, it never feels cramped. Skylights illuminate everything down to the cellar, and the design is very open, allowing you to peek into other rooms, even other floors, from every room.
When Soane was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, he began to organize his casts, models, paintings, and books in a display so that students could come here, study, and be inspired. He arranged with friends in Parliament to pass an Act that upon his death, his house would be preserved as a free museum.
His house is still open as the Sir John Soane’s Museum. It’s still free and it looks much the same as it did when Soane died in 1837. When I was there, no electric lights were on but the sunlight coming through the skylights provided plenty of illumination. No photos are allowed (not even for visiting travel bloggers) and the house has an eerie feel to it, like its resident just left two weeks ago rather than two centuries.
The house overlooks Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a lovely green space in the heart of London. It’s a great spot to sit and have a picnic while admiring the Georgian architecture all around.