After a comprehensive restoration lasting seven years and costing £7million ($8,536,000), Sir John Soane’s Museum in London has returned to its founder’s original design. The Soane is a uniquely idiosyncratic museum founded by preeminent neoclassical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) in his home and office at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A self-made man, he first bought No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792 after he was invited to become a member of the Architects’ Club, an important milestone marking his success and the approval of his peers. He completely remodeled the building and facade. In 1806, after his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, he bought the house next door at No. 13 and completely rebuilt it too.
By then his library and collection of antiquities, plaster casts and architectural models was too large to fit in one property and he conceived the idea to dedicate both No. 12 and No. 13 to a museum that would allow architecture students and interested amateurs to study his models, paintings, drawings and sculptures. While at first he planned to organize his collection in categories, he abandoned that idea in favor of an eclectic, chaotic arrangement of interesting juxtapositions that would inspire creativity in visitors.
In 1812, he opened No. 13 to his students in the hope it would enhance their education. Magazine reviews were rapturous, referring to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields museum as “an Academy of Architecture.” Soane wanted to ensure that his homemade “Academy” would remain open to the public entirely unchanged even after his death. That took an extraordinary effort because his son George as the direct male heir by law would inherit his property and Soane had a terrible relationship with his son. The only way to disinherit him was by a literal Act of Parliament, so Soane campaigned assiduously to get a Private Act to preserve his beloved collection in the buildings on which he had put so decidedly personal a stamp.
In April of 1833, the Soane Museum Act was passed requiring that after Sir John’s death, the house and collection be managed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the nation and that they be kept “as nearly as possible” just as they were. Soane died in 1837 and the terms of the Act went into effect. Over the years, changes were made both to the structures — additions, walls knocked down, doors and rooms closed off, the Model Room on the second floor converted into a curator’s apartment and later offices — and, as exhibition space retreated to the needs of administration, to the objects on display.
A solution presented itself in the form of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane had bought that building too in 1823, rebuilding it as he had its brethren and using the stables as a picture gallery connected to No. 13. The home itself he rented. This building was not included in the Act of Parliament. Soane left it to his family. In 2009, the museum had the chance to buy No. 14. They snapped it up and finally had much-needed office space. This gave them the freedom to embark on an extensive renovation of museum to restore it to Sir John’s original vision.
After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from many private donors and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Opening up the Soane (OUTS) project began in 2011. The last phase of the project was completed last month, and now not only are the rooms restored to their former design with the artifacts, models and art works in the spaces where Soane wanted them to be — 365 objects that have been in storage since 1837 are now back on display — but new spaces have been opened as well. The kitchens, for example, once the exclusive domain of Soane’s servants, now give visitors a rare glimpse into a Regency era kitchen. The original 1812 range in the back kitchen is believed to be the oldest surviving patented kitchen range in the world. There’s also a custom dresser designed by Soane in the front kitchen.
Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum says; “This is a momentous day in the history of the Soane Museum. Our extensive restoration work over the past seven years has reinstated all of Soane’s spaces which were lost over the decades following his death – many of them thought to be lost forever. Now, following the completion of this third and final phase of Opening Up the Soane, visitors can experience the Museum as fully as Sir John Soane intended”.