Behind the façades of three townhouses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London lies a complex warren of rooms with paintings, sculptures, and architectural fragments and models in every nook and cranny. This was the home of architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who used the building not just as a place to live and work, but also as a museum to educate and inspire architects of the future. The atmospheric museum is home, too, to 30,000 drawings – the most numerous part of the collection. A few are displayed framed in the public rooms, but most are shut away in volumes and drawers in different spaces across the building. A new exhibition presenting 22 of these works offers an intriguing taste of what lies hidden, and while it may be a numerically modest selection, Hidden Masterpieces still impresses with the quality of the drawings.
It was with Soane’s appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, in 1806, that he began to collect drawings with great fervour. For his 12 Academy lectures on the history of architecture, he tasked his apprentices with completing colourful and accurate large-scale drawings of buildings that would be held up while he spoke. Featured among these lecture drawings is the magnificent ancient Greek Temple of Neptune at Paestum in southern Italy. Though Soane had produced his own drawings of the site, which he had visited on his Grand Tour in 1778-1780, this later 1806 work borrows more from the images of the influential Italian designer Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Soane, who met Piranesi in Rome in 1778, collected several of his works, including views of Paestum.
Different buildings are brought together in another lecture drawing, in which the apprentice Charles Tyrrell shows four of the great domed edifices of Italy and England side by side. First is Soane’s own work, the comparatively diminutive Rotunda at the Bank of England, built in 1785. Beyond that are the Radcliffe Library in Oxford, built in 1748, and then the 2nd-century AD Pantheon in Rome. Looming over them all is St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, its dome completed in 1590. Soane’s building and the Pantheon are shown in section, slicing through to the interior, which is perhaps intended as a visual link between the modern master’s work and the grandeur of ancient Rome.
Ancient monuments beyond Italy also appeared in the lectures. As Frances Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books at the museum and the curator of the exhibition, explained, Soane sent three of his apprentices on a miniature Grand Tour of Wiltshire to create drawings for the lectures, but also to get surveying experience and improve their knowledge of the region’s architecture. The trip led to seven lecture drawings of Stonehenge. One by Henry Parke, on display in the exhibition, presents an aerial view of this famous stone circle on a green grass plain. Some show the team scaling the rocks with the tools that allowed them to make the measurements and calculations needed to produce these accurate works – even a bird’s-eye view that they were unable to see for themselves. Such a view of Stonehenge was not unique: in the 1620s the architect Inigo Jones had produced his own aerial plan of the site (which he erroneously believed had been built by the Romans, thinking no one else in ancient Britain could achieve such a feat). Parke’s work exceeds this predecessor in its accuracy, complete with annotations detailing the sizes of the stones, and lines marking out the solstice alignments.
Other aspects of Soane’s work are represented by drawings produced by his office of his own architectural projects. The drawing office in the house-museum is currently being restored, with plans to open it up to visitors from early 2023. Around 8,000 office drawings survive, depicting some of his best-known commissions, including the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, at different stages during construction. The ‘progress drawings’ were based on sketches made on site and worked up in colour later. Soane saw them as a valuable part of his pupils’ training, offering a chance to get to grips with a building site.
Soane was keen to gather existing drawings of celebrated architects, not just produce new images. The opportunity to make an important acquisition came in 1818, when the collections of prolific Neoclassical architects Robert and James Adam were auctioned off after their deaths, as family finances were strained following the failed Adelphi town-planning project in London. Further acquisitions from the family followed. The Adam style had fallen out of fashion, so early attempts to sell off their office drawings, the drawings produced in the business of the architects, failed. But in 1833 their niece Susannah Clerk approached Soane, who proved again a willing buyer.
As Sands points out, not all the images in the exhibition are of architecture. There is one notable exception: a small refined pen-and-watercolour work depicting women in an idyllic garden. A Persian inscription tells us that the central figure is Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan; it is for her that the spectacular mausoleum the Taj Mahal was built. This is just one leaf from two volumes of Indian and Persian miniatures Soane owned, illustrating how his interests extended far beyond the Greek and Roman architecture that so influence Neoclassicism.
Some of the works offer imaginative images of architectural assemblages, fragments of material heaped together in fantasy compositions. Others hint at an alternate reality through unexecuted designs for buildings and interiors, such as an intricate Adam office ceiling design. A beautiful example is a sketch by the renowned 17th-century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. With charming pen lines and subtle ink washes, Gibbons (who was not a trained draughtsman) shows us his vision for a chimneypiece at Hampton Court Palace, the home of King William III and Queen Mary II on the Thames that was being renovated by Sir Christopher Wren. Above the fireplace a relief showing a Roman battle scene supports a large military-themed carving with two putti surrounded by bundles of armour and weapons. This ambitious sculptural design would have been costly, which was perhaps the reason why it was rejected even in this royal home.
A different vision of a known monument is offered by another drawing, which transports the real tomb of the Soane family from the St Giles-in-the-Fields burial ground in London to an unreal wooded valley. Soane started work designing this tomb seven weeks after the death of his wife Eliza in 1815. The impact of this loss on Soane can be traced through the building: for example, in a small model of the tomb or a pencil portrait of Eliza Soane with a touching French inscription derived from Madame de Staël’s 1807 book Corinne, ou l’Italie: ‘Dear friend, I can no longer hear your voice – teach me what I must do – to fulfil your wishes!’. These words lend themselves to a new film by Anne-Marie Creamer, currently on view in the museum.
After her death, Soane preserved Eliza’s room for some 19 years, before converting it into his model room, where cork and plaster models of buildings ranging from the temples at Paestum to the Bank of England were displayed. This space and the adjoining morning room of Mrs Soane, decorated with paintings she chose herself, can be visited on tours, but, now filled with models, the room reveals little of its original function. Using photogrammetry of objects in the museum and CGI animation, Dear Friend, I Can No Longer Hear Your Voice recreates Eliza Soane’s bedchamber. It is not just a visual piece, for views of the room are accompanied by a sung soundtrack based on diaries of Soane and his friends, poignantly voicing his reaction to the death, and reflecting his devotion to his wife and her memory.
Though her bedchamber was undisturbed for nearly 20 years, that Soane ultimately converted it into a display for monuments in miniature reflects his steadfast commitment to architectural education, whether through these models or the thousands of drawings that he tasked his trainees to complete and collected to preserve for posterity.
Hidden Masterpieces and Dear Friend, I Can No Longer Hear Your Voice are on view at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London until 5 June 2022. See www.soane.org for details.
A book by curator Frances Sands featuring a wider selection of drawings is available: Architectural Drawings: hidden masterpieces from Sir John Soane’s Museum, published by Batsford (price £35; ISBN 978-1849945851).
ALL IMAGES: Sir John Soane’s Museum.