Going home for the holidays? Set aside at least half a day for Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
Issue 3, December 2006
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Sir John Soane`s Museum
In 1833 architect Sir John Soane, owner of the building at 12-14 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, decided to put an end to the drama which had been going on for years behind the white Portland stone facade decorated with antique sculpture and Gothic consoles.
He disinherited his son George, a spendthrift who was constantly landing in the debtor's prison, and, using his personal contacts, managed to negotiate a private Act of Parliament. It decreed that after Soane's death, his home would be bequeathed to the nation, the only condition being that the interior of the building be maintained as it was.
Four years later, the architect died and London was granted the incredible boon of becoming the owner of one of the most eccentric museums in the universe.
That museum, as well as the Bank of England, are among the few surviving examples of Soane's work. Unlike the building in Threadneedle Street, Soane's bizarre home is known only to a handful of Londoners, even though it was recently put on a new tourist map in the Tube.
Soane was born in 1753 to a bricklayer's family. His ascent in London society began in 1780, on his return from a three-year stay in Italy on a Royal Academy scholarship. His fame, though initially modest, allowed him to marry George Wyatt's niece Elizabeth Smith in 1784 and landed him a commission to design the Bank of England in 1788.
There is not a single record, however, of why he became such a devoted antiquarian. The fashion of the time encouraged people to collect antique marbles, fossils, coins and stuffed animals with equal pleasure - in fact, they amassed anything considered ancient, beautiful or interesting.
In the 1780s, Soane began collecting curiosities, and in 1795 he became a member of the British Society of Antiquaries. Some time earlier, with the inherent practicality which had made him so popular with his wealthy lawyer and merchant clients, he had found a place where he could live and keep his collection.
In 1792 he bought and rebuilt the house at No. 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields. Several years later, he added to it the adjacent No. 13, which, after a succession of changes in 1808-9 and 1812, acquired its unusual facade.
In 1823-1824 Soane bought and rebuilt No. 14 as well. Until his death, the architect continued to buy curiosities and exhibit them in his home: a real maze cluttered with an Egyptian sarcophagus; Roman, Renaissance and English statues; Chinese porcelain; clocks, barometers and timepieces; furniture, including the maharajah of Mysore's ivory chairs; gems and scarabs; pictures and picture frames; Greek, Roman and Peruvian pottery; Indian miniatures; cinerary urns and tombstones from all over the ancient world; medals; fossils and mummified cats; and nearly 30,000 architectural drawings and prints.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers