This towering property with its distinctly ornate, creamy coloured facade, immediately stands out from the row of ordinary brick buildings in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and justly so. Responsible for the classical detail and symmetry of the front elevation of this fine house was one of England's greatest architects, Sir John Soane. He was also an avid collector of antiquities and art treasures, and his unusual home officially became a museum in 1833.
Born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, John Soane's talent was recognised early in his architectural career, and at the age of 35 he was commissioned to design the prestigious Bank of England building. In 1792 John Soane bought No 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, rebuilding it as a family home, and extending it some 21 years later by the purchase of the property next door, No 13. Having converted the two properties to provide ample living accommodation, Soane was able to use part of the house as a museum to display his growing collections of paintings, sculptures and fragments of ancient architecture.
By 1823 he had acquired No 14, which he similarly rebuilt, but used only the stable yard as an extension to his museum, and rented out the house. During his lifetime John Soane amassed a most extraordinary and diverse collection of 'objects d'art', mainly for the purpose of inspiring and educating the uninitiated in the classical principles of design. Much of his time was spent arranging and rearranging pieces as his acquisitions continued to grow, but he stipulated that everything should remain as it would be left at the time of his death. Despite a huge restoration programme during the 1990s, Sir John Soane could quite happily return to the house he departed from in 1837 and feel comfortably 'at home' with the familiar surroundings.
The arrangement of rooms throughout the three combined properties is complex, and often disorientating, with many areas of indeterminate dimensions, domestic quarters leading or merging with display pieces, and such an overwhelming amount of cluttered detail on varying levels that it is easy to miss something at first glance. Bits of Roman temples, plaster casts of famous marble monuments, assorted burial paraphernalia, fragments from ruined monastic structures, examples of old stained glass and a huge Egyptian alabaster sarcophagus highlight just a few of the items in this rich accumulation of wares put together by Sir John Soane. In the picture room alone there are over 100 paintings, sketches and drawings, and the new picture room, added to the museum in 1890, is dominated by three beautiful Caneletto scenes.
An accurate restoration of the breakfast parlour in No 12 was made possible by a watercolour of the room, painted by Joseph Gandy in 1798, and looks every inch the pretty garden room that John Soane created soon after rebuilding the house. But the small, domed breakfast parlour in No 13 presents a vivid contrast, with strong colours, an intense use of mirrors, and elaborately carved detail.
A sense of genius, even eccentricity, echoes through the very gothic atmosphere of this uniquely interesting residence-cum-workplace-cum-museum, and leaves the visitor longing to return to this amazing world of art and architecture as seen through the eyes of Sir John Soane.