Open House | Sir John Soane

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of the capital’s most unusual historic attractions – and now this leading architect’s private apartments have been opened to the public for the first time in 160 years.

(Above) Portrait of John Soane by William Owen (1804)

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of the capital’s most unusual historic attractions – and now this leading architect’s private apartments have been opened to the public for the first time in 160 years. Author and museum archivist Susan Palmer, who’s spent years researching the Soane documents, provides a vivid picture of the family’s daily life in Regency London

John and Eliza Soane first moved into No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields with their two sons, John and George, then aged eight and five respectively, in 1794. They were joined a few years later by a Manchester terrier called Fanny, Eliza’s much loved and pampered pet. The dog lived to a great age, outliving her mistress by five years and dying on Christmas Day in 1820 – she is buried in a courtyard at the back of Sir John Soane’s Museum in a tomb bearing the inscription ‘Alas Poor Fanny!’.

In 1813 Soane and his wife, together with Fanny, moved next door to No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The children had by this date grown up and left home, but the household was still a very lively one, being home to their five servants (a butler, a footman, two housemaids and a cook), all of whom lived in, as well as Soane’s architectural pupils – half a dozen young boys aged 16 or so who, whilst living elsewhere, spent long hours each day in Soane’s drawing office at the back of the house. The etiquette of the day demanded that the pupils were strictly forbidden to fraternise with or even talk to the servants.

It was a semi-public house too, with daily visits from clients wishing to commission Soane and perhaps to copy ideas from the rooms they saw, and strangers who could make an appointment on certain days to view the eccentric interiors and Soane’s eclectic collection.

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(Above) The house at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now home to Sir John Soane’s Museum

 Nor was the architecture or the collection static – both houses were frequently thrown into confusion by building work, often to accommodate new purchases that Soane had made in the London salerooms. Some of these purchases were quite sizeable objects – twice part of the back wall of the house had to be taken down, and one bill records ‘a cart with straw and beer for the workmen’. It is small wonder that Eliza liked to escape periodically to friends in the Surrey countryside or to embark on holidays at the Kentish seaside.

Thanks to Soane’s habit of keeping diaries and his reluctance to throw away even the most mundane of domestic bills we know a great deal about daily life in the house – the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the tradesmen they patronised and who they entertained and were entertained by. And the picture is made all the more vivid by the many watercolours of the interiors of the house painted by Soane’s pupils over the years as architectural exercises, including views of such private spaces as Soane’s bedroom and bathroom.

‘The papers chronicle a colourful domestic episode when the servants had a major quarrel’ 

One particular cache of papers which might normally have been discarded chronicles a colourful domestic episode in 1827, when the household servants had a major quarrel resulting in various accusations and counter-accusations, forcing Soane to interview them all in an attempt to get to the bottom of it. The notes Soane took afford us a rare glimpse into the backgrounds of a class of whom we often know little.

One of the housemaids, for instance, Catherine Hazelwood, was Welsh, and married to a waiter at Tom’s Coffee House in Cornhill, where he lived in. She accused Joshua Smith, the 19-year-old footman of laziness and drunkenness, recounting a day in October 1826 when he had been out from about 12 noon to 5pm or 6pm with a servant of Soane’s daughter-in law.

Her accusation is recorded as follows: “He was so tipsy when he came in that he could scarcely stand; he sat down in the kitchen for about five minutes, he then got up and went into the Monk’s Yard, he was sick all the way he went there, he remained in the Monk’s Yard, he… surprised every servant in the house – as he refused taking a glass of home-made wine for he said he could never take anything but… plain water. He was brought in I believe by cook into the back kitchen… Cook asked me if I would help put him to bed, she said he would catch his death with cold as he was leaning over the sink.”

Asked by Soane why she had not mentioned it to him at the time, as was her duty, she simply replied: “I thought it would only create words.”

This episode, however, seems to have been a rare disturbance of Soane’s domestic calm, as all his servants received bequests in his will on his death in 1837.

“At Home with the Soanes: Upstairs, Downstairs in 19th Century London”

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“At Home with the Soanes: Upstairs, Downstairs in 19th Century London”(Pimpernel Press) by Susan Palmer is available now. Free 30-minutes tours of the newly-restored rooms are available to book until 29 August

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SUPER MODELS – Visitors to the Soane now have more to explore

 Tours are now available to view the fully restored private apartments and model room, located on the second floor at No. 13. The rooms were dismantled and transformed into a curator’s apartment and offices shortly after Soane’s death. Fortunately records about their appearance survived, along with most of the contents. Since 2009, conservation experts Julian Harrap Architects have worked on the restoration that includes a bedroom, bathroom (it was one of the few town houses to have plumbed in hot water), book passage, oratory and Mrs Soane’s morning room. Many items from these rooms – models, drawings, stained-glass – have been in storage until now.

Soane’s model room had been the bedroom of his wife, Eliza, who died in 1815. In 1834, three years before his death, Soane transformed the bedroom that had been left preserved for almost 20 years. Some 40 models will be back on display in the room, including the cork model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo at Paestum and Soane’s own architectural models (he designed Dulwich Picture Gallery and the former Bank of England building). Of course, model-making continues to play a key role in architecture today.

There are also recently restored interiors at No. 12 (the original family home), along with more familiar treasures of the museum such as Clerkenwell artist William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and a 3,000 year-old sarcophagus of Egyptian king Seti I.