The Driehaus Museum has three sister institutions in Europe, each simply resplendent and embodying the highest ideals of preservation and classical architecture, just as we strive to do here in Chicago. The Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley is known for its dazzling French Renaissance design, while the Château de Chantilly—about an hour’s drive from Paris—houses a strong collection of French paintings in its Musée Condé. Finally, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London provides a beautiful glimpse of classic Georgian architecture and honors the collecting legacy of one of England’s great architects.
This blog post is part of a short series talking about our sister institutions across the pond. Let’s start with Soane’s Museum.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane, R.A., was an architect, one of the greatest of England’s Georgian era. He was born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, and after his apprenticeship and study at the Royal Academy set up his own practice in 1781. He completed an impressive number of commissions—some of which still survive today, like the Dulwich Gallery—and was appointed to a professorship at the Royal Academy in 1806.
Stroll up to Sir John Soane’s former home today—No. 13, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, just a few winding streets north of the banks of the Thames—and you’ll see an architect’s vision many times revised. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, Soane endeavored in major construction projects all along the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, acquiring, demolishing, and adding on to Nos. 12, 13, and 14.
An avid collector of plaster casts, books, drawings, architectural fragments, paintings, and marbles—“a real magpie,” as Museum Director Tim Knox puts it on the audio tour—Soane wanted to make these works available for his students’ benefit. To this end he first built a private museum and architectural office behind No. 13, where the stables had once been, and then negotiated an Act of Parliament which would preserve his legacy for centuries to come. The Act basically determined that his property, buildings and collection and all, to go straight into the hands of a board of trustees upon his death; this board would, from 1837 on, uphold his wish for the space to be a museum.
The building, considering all perfecting alterations as he made to it over the years, exudes Soane’s idiosyncratic, then-modern architectural style at its best. The façade is Georgian classical simplicity itself, with white stone, perfect symmetry, and pair of female caryatids atop referencing the Erechtheion of ancient Athens. The interiors were designed to highlight Soane’s collection to his satisfaction, and today his decorative domestic objects live side-by-side with sculptures and rare books.
The museum, which doesn’t charge admission fees, also offers its two audio tours online. Also available are text guides with titles like “Portraits and Personalities,” “Caring for Soane’s Collection,” “London in the Soane,” and “Bibliomania,” that would serve to carry you on a themed path through the museum, but when reading from home, provides an excellent frame of reference for the museum and its collection.
Another virtual perk: this year is the 200th anniversary of No. 13’s reconstruction. To honor it, the museum staff are posting daily snippets from the architect’s diary of 1812 and offering commentary to supplement the pragmatic, taciturn lists or sketches of construction activities. (July 13, 1812: “Mr. Tyndale gave up the possession of No. 13 this morning.” September 14: “The Carpenters began to hoist the timbers of the Garret floor to the back part of the house.” Etcetera.)