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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of Sir John Soane's Museum in London

What is Sir John Soane's Museum?

Sir John Soane's Museum is a personal collection of celebrated British architect, designer and collector Sir John Soane, boasting an impressive range of antiquities, sculpture, sketches and paintings.

Sir John Soane's Museum

Simon Burchell, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sir John Soane's Museum History

Sir John Soane was a British polymath: architect, designer, collector, curator, he also has a distant but crucial influence on modernism. His former home, overflowing with meticulously curated treasures, was bequeathed to the public as a museum upon his death. While his brilliance and his legacy are celebrated by architectural aficionados and passing visitors alike, Soane’s achievements seemed in his own time inextricable from his famous familial torment. The tragedies that befell the Soanes fuelled some of his greatest work.

For 22 years after the death of his wife, Eliza, Soane was haunted. His preoccupation with his loss was his inspiration, shaping his work and his curation for his remaining years. Her demise, after 31 years of marriage, marked for Soane ‘the burial of all that [was] dear to [him] in this world, and all [he] wished to live for’. The likely cause was, in prosaic hindsight, her long-term illness; but Eliza, and her husband, blamed her heartbreak at their son’s treachery. George, their second surviving son, had gained a public reputation as a wastrel and layabout, and dismissed Soane’s hopes of following in his artistic footsteps. His relationship with his parents was turbulent and spiteful. He demanded money from them, married a woman because they disapproved of her, ran up hefty debts all over London, and gained a reputation for his hot temper.

Shortly after he emerged from a brief stint behind bars in 1815 (his long-suffering and estranged mother paid off his bail and outstanding debts) two articles were published in The Champion newspaper. They criticised the contemporary state of British architecture, and singled out John Soane as its chief culprit. Once the couple ascertained that the words were written by their own son, Eliza proclaimed: ‘These are George’s doings – he has given me my death blow – I shall never hold up my head again’. Distraught, she died within two months of the articles’ publication.

History has been kinder to Soane’s architecture, including his magnificent and eccentric Bank of England. He was, however, a man possessed by grief, anger, and resentment. He blamed his son entirely for the loss of his beloved wife, and never spoke to George again before his death in 1837. Soane even displayed the fatal articles in his house, labelled with an inscription carved on a piece of wood: ‘Death blows given by George Soane’, alerting every visitor to his son’s treachery and disgrace. George died disinherited and penniless in 1860.

Soane was buried in the elaborate tomb he designed for his wife. Its design was innovative in the early 19th century, though became commonplace after serving as the inspiration for London’s iconic red telephone boxes. In order to house his ever-growing collection of antiquities and paintings, Soane acquired and rebuilt each of the three buildings that are now occupied by this eponymous museum. Within its walls you’ll find a remarkable collection of priceless antiquities, ornate sculpture, architectural sketches, and paintings by 18th-century masters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth. The museum’s interior may appear chaotic at first glance. However, this isn’t the product of Soane piling up artefacts to heal his pain, but rather a purposeful arrangement to create ‘inspiring juxtapositions’.

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