Born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, Soane’s best-known work was the Bank of England, a building which is thought to have had a major influence on commercial architecture.
Soane was a visionary of his time and his talents are on show for all to see at his home, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he built in 1812. Four years before he died, Soane established the house as a museum by an Act of Parliament in 1833, requiring that his romantic and poetic interiors be kept as they were at the time of his death.
Ahead of his time
In his new house, its construction partly funded with money inherited by his wife Eliza, Soane installed plumbing. He had flushing water closets, running water for baths and wash basins, and heating that wafted up through decorative floor vents.
Upstairs, above the formal rooms, he created a cosy suite of rooms now carefully restored and open to the public. They include two bedrooms, a dressing room, a separate bathroom, a morning room, a library passage and an oratory passage. The main rooms were heated by fires.
A visitor at the time said that these private rooms were “the very acme of convenience, elegance and comfort”. The restoration has been 30 years in the planning, with the work completed in the past few years providing a vivid evocation of the personal life of Soane and his wife.
Following Soane’s death in 1837, when the house became a museum, these rooms were knocked together for the curator to live in, and later used as an office. Stained-glass windows were removed, while mahogany doors and furniture were taken and used elsewhere. The reinstatement has been a labour of love, with every detail recreated as close to the original as possible, and furniture or paintings that had migrated to other parts of the house tracked down and restored.
Windows, doors, faux-mahogany graining, wallpaper and carpets have been remade. Even the nails holding the pictures on the walls have been specially made, with many picture frames regilded.
Soane ran his thriving architecture practice from home, but every evening the couple retired to their upstairs rooms, until Eliza’s death in 1815.
Curiously, these rooms were reached through a lockable iron gate on the staircase. But then Soane, whose collection of paintings, carvings and architectural models is like no other in the world, was no ordinary man.
Soane and Eliza had their own bedrooms, which was the norm at the time. Every morning, Eliza had breakfast in bed, then strolled into her sunny morning room to write letters. Soane turned her bedroom into his model room a few years before his own death, and it has been lovingly restored as just that, with an amazing model of Pompeii.
All in the detail
Sadly, Soane kept no record of how his wife’s bedroom looked. But his own stylish chamber was recorded in a detailed painting. His four-poster bed has been remade down to every detail, with fawn woollen hangings and a deep valance.
His en suite bathroom-cum-dressing room is gorgeous. Here, with a blazing fire, Soane bathed in a fully plumbed, mahogany-encased tub and washed in a closable, mahogany-cased basin, all designed by him.
Soane’s meticulous records mean that the curators, led by deputy director Helen Dorey, have pulled off some coups. For example, in the bathroom, a big patch of original hand-blocked wallpaper was found under layers of paper and paint. Created by a firm called Cowtan & Son, the Victoria and Albert Museum still holds the original order book with a sample of Soane’s paper. This has been remade and hung throughout the rooms.
These private rooms are linked by a book-lined passage with its original fitted mahogany bookcases in classic Soane fashion.
There are also a pair of mummified cats and a rat in a glass case on top. One of the rooms features a small, separate water closet, which was an almost unimaginable luxury back in the early 19th century, plus a magnificent skylight.
Soane was so far ahead of his time that, even today, one can easily imagine living here.
- Book to tour the new rooms at Sir John Soane’s Museum
- Buy At Home with the Soanes by Susan Palmer, published by Pimpernel Press, £12 (including p&p), at shop.soane.org with code SOANE006.