London has so many layers of history and so many iconic places to visit that many forget the smaller museums, the hidden gems behind the busy streets.
One of these treasures is the John Soane Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields near Holborn station.
Born in 1753, Soane was the son of a humble bricklayer and yet rose to become one of England’s greatest architects. He was Architect to the Bank of England and the Office of Works, so he was responsible for the government and royal buildings in Whitehall and Westminster. Soane was also a great collector and spent his wife’s fortune on acquiring sculpture, paintings and objects of beauty from around the world, storing them in a house that he converted to his particular needs.
The house and contents were given to the nation in an Act of Parliament in 1833. Soane gave directions that the house must be kept as he left it, and it can still be visited, laid out in the way he wished it to be.
I have visited the Museum several times, waiting outside until allowed in.
It is a place to get lost inside, both in a physical sense but also in time.
It has layers of history, just as London itself does.
Soane was also the Grand Superintendent of Works for the Freemasons during the height of his architectural powers in London. The United Grand Lodge of England is just around the corner, and he was instrumental in remodeling the hall and kitchens, but he also designed an Ark of the Covenant to be used in ceremonies. It’s nothing like the biblical Ark in design but it was constructed for a secret purpose and officially it was destroyed during the great fire of 1883
Here’s an excerpt from Exodus, ARKANE Book 3, when Dr Morgan Sierra visits the Museum in order to talk to the Curator, Sir Sebastian Northbrook, who keeps a secret about Soane’s involvement with the Freemasons, whose Grand Lodge of England is only a few streets away.
Sebastian pulled open a pair of narrow doors at the back of the salon to reveal a tiny corridor lined with pictures, engravings and paintings. It was lit with skylights cut into the walls and ceiling. Outside the window, a rectangular courtyard with classical sculpture and a water garden was reminiscent of a Roman villa.
The corridor emerged into a gallery, packed from floor to coffered ceiling with classical statues, casts of busts, original sculptures and objects from every historical era. Morgan gaped at the scene. Here was the goddess Sekhmet, a lion-headed stone figure that looked out over the riot of antiquities. There were slave manacles, rusty and worn, as if hacked from the body of the non-person inside them. Chinese dragon dogs played alongside basalt obelisks and a black marble head of Jupiter, six times life-size, gazed out with unfathomable eyes. A huge statue of Apollo looked down into the basement below, while relief friezes of conquest lined the walls about the god.
It was a labyrinth of early civilization, laid out in some kind of chaotic order, but her sense was of being overwhelmed. The brain was unable to process the sheer number of antiquities, the eye given no obvious place to linger in the face of so much choice. Morgan felt an urge to forget the Ark quest and immerse herself in this well of culture instead. To any lover of the classics, this was a kind of heaven.
“Is this all real?” she asked, well aware that the British of the Empire had done much salvaging of artifacts from throughout the world, some of it gathered through official means, kept safe and of benefit to future generations, but much of it ill-gotten and looted.
“Soane was a man who always got what he wanted,” said Sebastian. “But sometimes all he wanted was a cast, so many of the moldings you see are casts from the original. He was a poet of architecture, enamored of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires in particular. The juxtaposition of the objects here was calculated to produce a particular impression. Architecture was, for him, the queen of the fine arts, with painting and sculpture as her handmaids. Together they combine, and this place showcases his vision of the mighty powers of music, poetry and allegory. But come downstairs to the basement and see the real jewel.”
Sebastian slipped down some stairs, hidden behind yet more classical sculpture.
“I’ll remain here, it’s too steep for me” Ben said. “I can hear you from the balcony. Go on.” He indicated that Morgan should follow.
She descended into semi-darkness, but as her eyes adjusted she saw that the basement was crowded with yet more precious objects. Pale natural light streamed in through the skillful use of light wells cut into the walls, both vertical and horizontal, reflected in a series of mirrors. On sunny days, Morgan could see that the light would permeate into the nooks and crannies of this basement, alighting on the faces of long dead gods frozen in stone for centuries. Today, clouds muted the light, giving a ghostly pall to the figures within. Morgan startled a little as she passed a skeleton hanging in a closet, its bones a fused androgyny of male and female in a sculpted abomination.
The following video from the Guardian takes you into the John Soane museum.