Hidden Masterpieces, Sir John Soane’s Museum – invisible designs reveal the mind of the architect

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“He plunders in the annals of antiquity. . . remains of mausoleums, caryatids, pillars of temples, ornaments of the Pantheon, all piled up with a perversion of taste. . . It flies a little here, and a little there. . . Too boring for madness, and too crazy for the sobriety of reason. This was the cruel verdict on Sir John Soane, published anonymously in “The Champion” newspaper in 1815. After the architect’s beloved wife, Eliza, read it and identified the author – the son of the couple, George – she exclaimed, “He gave me my deathblow!”, and died a month later.

The maverick classicist of one era is the postmodern master of pastiche and appropriation of another. Today Soane is acclaimed for his hybridity, complexity, fluid forms – his bizarre central London home, now the Sir John Soane Museum, is a maze of hallways, vestibules, alcoves – and for his role as an educator: his sky-lit Dulwich Picture Gallery was Britain’s first purpose-built public art gallery.

But in the century after his death in 1837, London planners agreed with George: many buildings in Soane were demolished. This is how his funerary monument for Eliza became, by chance, Soane’s most familiar design: the open/closed structure of its Ionic columns housing a marble tomb, surmounted by a shallow dome, inspired the Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic red telephone booth – classicism made democratic, bright and ubiquitous for the 20th century.

This illumination shows the construction of the Tower of Babel from a book of hours (after 1512), a sign of architectural pride

Soane’s memorial, the size of a telephone box, stands in the old St Pancras Cemetery, hemmed in by the tracks behind the Eurostar terminal. But even before the age of the railway, he had it in his mind quite differently. Hidden masterpiecesthe Soane Museum’s beautifully choreographed small exhibition of highlights from his previously unseen collection of works on paper, features a watercolor by one of his students where the monument, like a temple, towers over cypresses in a vast, lush landscape, its crown pineapple tree hitting the clouds.

Nearby rises another sarcophagus on a gentle slope, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Ermenonville. Soane the classicist thus declared his own romantic sensibility, as lover, architect, collector. The drawing reveals his deep reflection in the composition of the monument.

Hidden masterpieces is doubly captivating. First, to Soane’s eagle eye – the quality of these precious and rare images of buildings and interiors, many of them pristine and never before exhibited, is breathtaking. Second, they give a sense of the hidden Soane – his insatiable, troubled imagination, unfolding to turn on itself. A snake eating its tail is engraved on its monument.

Drawing of a large round structure with lots of arches
‘The Colosseum, Rome’ (c1550) by Hieronymus Cock

The show opens with a Renaissance illumination of the Tower of Babel, chaotic spiraling scaffolding: one of the first images of a building under construction – and a reminder that for architects, pride goes hand in hand with territory. It ends with an aerial view of Stonehenge in a huge, colorful drawing to scale, the stones casting long shadows: an almost sculptural rendering of Soane’s apprentice, Henry Parke, sent to Wiltshire to understand “the grandeur and scale” in the context of megalithic endurance. .

Soane loved architectural designs that commemorate, dramatize, fantasize, preserve the destroyed, imagine the unbuilt. Hieronymus Cock’s ‘Colosseum’ (c1550), with glimpses through the arches into an arena enlivened by busy stick figures, plays on an aesthetic of collapse with cartoonish energy. Nicholas Hawksmoor dreams of an arcaded piazza, more Tiber than Thames, in limpid (unbuilt) designs for the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral (c1696-97). The ornately frescoed library of George Dance Lansdowne House (1788-1794), outlined painting by painting, book by book, in an exquisite cross-section, references the Roman interiors then excavated at Pompeii. Its fate was sad — fashion passing, it was destroyed in 1816.

Collecting the works of his predecessors has been a journey of positioning and discovery for Soane, whose life has been an emblem of Georgian upward mobility. He was born the son of a mason in Oxfordshire on September 10, 1753, but the date he always recorded in his diary was March 18; that day in 1778 he left London for Rome on a royal scholarship. He arrived just in time to meet Piranesi, an eminent designer of ruins, who died months later.

Pen and wash drawing of arches and stairs
‘Capriccio’ (c1745-50) by Piranesi, whose love of ruins inspired Soane

Dominating the first gallery, the flamboyant “Capriccio” by Piranesi, in red and black chalk, is enlivened with brilliant strokes of ink and wash. It seems to float and then take flight – arch upon arch opens onto stairways, urns, vases, reliefs lined with masked figures, pediments, colonnades, each observed with precision but all amassed in a smoky phantasmagoria of dense ornamentation.

“Talking ruins filled my mind with images that precise drawings could never have conveyed,” Piranesi explained. This sense of the past as alive, fluid, changing as our feelings about it change, shaped Soane. A quarter of a century later, as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, he commissioned an enlarged copy of Piranesi’s “Temple of Neptune, Paestum” as a teaching aid: a striking sectional section, dotted with small gestural figures , monks, milords, tourists, a painter with canvas perched on a stone. They give the scale of the place, and the impression of a converged past and present.

Cross sections of four domed buildings, one in front of the other

A drawing comparing the scale of St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, the Radcliffe Camera and the Bank of England Rotunda (c1806-15) by Charles Tyrell, which Soane used for lectures at the Royal Academy

These huge lecture drawings, the equivalent of today’s PowerPoints, were celebrated. The most spectacular has overlapping elevations and sections revealing the construction feats of famous domed buildings in England and Italy: Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome towers, in decreasing size, over the Pantheon, Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera and Soane’s Rotunda for its Bank of England. .

An “Intricate Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England” – 45 years of work, “the pride and pride of my life” – is also here, along with close-ups of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, the Soane’s favorite of all antiquity. He commemorated it with Tivoli Corner, the columned passage at the intersection of Lothbury and Princes streets, which, together with the fortress wall of Threadneedle Street, is all that remains of its domed neoclassical bank today. today.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner called the destruction of Soane’s Bank “the greatest architectural crime of the 20th century”. Soane, with his melancholy perception of long duration, predicted its demise – although he hoped for gradual and magnificent decay, like Roman ruins. He commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint the Bank as a sectional overview, with no roof, all broken columns and gloomy arches. Gandy’s sublime composition, unfortunately not exhibited, is reproduced in the catalog for Hidden masterpieces — a beautiful voluminous volume written by the curator Frances Sands, filled with illustrations of works not exhibited, which makes one regret that this exhibition is so small.

A drawing of the large Bank of England block

‘A Bird’s-Eye View of the Bank of England’ from the Soane Office shows the architect’s life’s work © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

A drawing of the same roofless Bank of England block

A second bird’s eye view (1830) by Joseph Gandy can be found in the exhibition catalog

Soane inscribes on Gandy’s watercolor a quotation from Lesage’s picaresque novel Gil Blas“I want to raise the roof of this magnificent national edifice. . . The inside will be revealed to you like a meat pie without the crust. Most of the buildings depicted in this exhibition have disappeared or are fragments, but their designs remain and they raise the roof over one of the most intriguing spirits of Georgian culture.

As of June 5, soane.org

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