London is full of nice places spoilt by too many people. Covent Garden, Richmond and Tate Modern would be delightful if you could halve the number of visitors. It was with some relief therefore, that I turned off the grim artery that is the Kingsway, and entered Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see the usual modest queue in front of The Soane Museum. Thankfully this gem of a house is still some way off the tourist trail, the lucky few waiting outside dutifully switch off their mobiles and wait to be ushered in at irregular intervals to maintain the atmosphere inside.
Sir John Soane is chiefly remembered for designing The Bank of England, however his more resonant legacy is his house, half of which he converted into a museum during his lifetime. Visitors were welcome by appointment but not in ‘wet or dirty weather.’ His aim was to inspire and educate fledgling artists and architects. What remains today is a fascinating cornucopia housed in a technical marvel of a building.
The living quarters are cosy and comfortable but the place really comes alive in the rooms designed for his collection. The Picture Room is a small box that contains over a hundred paintings, all on display thanks to an ingenious hinged wall system that allows you to see Hogarth’s sequence of morality pictures, The Rake’s Progress, in its entirety. Three Venetian scenes by Canaletto and a Turner are also among the collection.
The Colonnade is packed with antiquities, such as classical busts and statues, urns and fragments of architecture. The glass dome floods the space with light yet mysterious objects still manage to hide in shadow, encouraging you to pause and peep into recesses. You can even look down into the crypt below where the sarcophagus of King Seti I awaits your inspection.
Adjoining the crypt is the Monk’s Parlour, Soane’s send-up of the contemporary passion for all things gothic. The low ceiling and constricted space coupled with casts of grotesque faces provoke an uneasy feel to the room. Whenever I am here, I imagine reading an M. R. James ghost story by candle light to a small group of nervous friends.
Three stops east on the Central Line is the Bank of England itself. Before I worked in the city, I had mistaken the Royal Exchange for our national bank. The actual edifice was demolished in the early twentieth century. What replaced it is fairly uninspiring, although the loss of Soane’s original interior being perhaps the greatest crime. In Bartholomew Lane you can visit the Bank of England Museum where, if you are an economics dunderhead like me, you can get to grips with inflation and quantitative easing. There is also the opportunity to feel the weight of a genuine gold bar, (very heavy), and examine one of your banknotes under ultraviolet light to see the anti-forgery techniques used.
By Richard Warburton
The Soane Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am with last entry at 4.30pm and it is free.
The Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane is open Monday to Friday from 10am with last entry at 4.45pm and it is also free.