- Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 April 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 14 April 2010 05:00
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London, England, U.K. This week our family is spending spring break from school here in Merrie Olde England. We have been visiting friends, doing the usual tourist activities, i.e., the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Canterbury, the White Cliffs of Dover, Stonehenge, Bath, and Windsor, where we stopped for Prince Philip to pass in front of us driving his wagon with four ponies down the Long Walk.
I had seen these places many times previously, and my wife and I wanted our two teenagers to experience them as well. New to me on this trip were visits to the Cabinet War Rooms where Winston Churchill led the British effort against the Nazis for five years, and Sir John Soane’s Museum. The latter is the subject of this column.
Sir John Soane was a leading British neo-classical architect who lived from 1753 until 1837. The Bank of England is his largest and most prominent work. He traveled to Rome and other classical sites, bought artifacts, and displayed them in his home across the park from Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He not only collected ancient pieces, but objects from all periods. Eventually he spread into two adjoining houses. All of these buildings had four stories and he filled every square foot with pieces of great beauty and interest.
The houses themselves, which he rebuilt, show his love of classicism, and they provide brilliant backdrops for the various displays. The stairway, an oval spiral, is perhaps his masterpiece. From its base looking up, its climb to the top is an almost incredible sight.
Sir John was clearly passionate about his things. He randomly displayed nothing, rather selecting each spot to enhance the beauty of his objects. He and his wife had four children, two of whom died in infancy, and another at 14. Only one son survived him, and he and the father became estranged.
In his will Sir John left his property to be a museum, funded with his estate as its endowment.
The endowment succeeded in funding the museum from his death until 1947 when the funds ran out. The city undertook management, and today the museum, in the form in which he left it 173 years ago, remains open to the public free of charge, as he had specified in his will. It is one of London’s hidden treasures, one that is well worth making the effort to visit. Ironically, it is a short walk from the British Museum, that other great repository for classical objects, most notably the Rosetta Stone discovered by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt and the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens.
Sir John Soane’s Museum and the British Museum complement each other quite handsomely.