Sir John Soane’s Museum is a unique free museum near Holborn, the former home of the neo-classical architect responsible for the Bank of England. He established the house as a museum in 1833, and it contains numerous treasures from his collection.
I booked online for the rare chance to visit the Private Apartments at the top of the house. These were originally home to Soane and his wife, and later to curators of the museum. After refurbishment, they have been made available to visit as part of a guided tour.
I turned up with my ticket and was directed upstairs, where the group of us due to tour were gathered together and taken up a further flight of stairs, normally roped off. We were told that the house was bombed during the war and was refurbished afterwards; some lovely stained glass was pointed out to us that survived because it was removed from the house before bombing on the orders of the then live-in curator.
The first room we came to was Elizabeth (Eliza) Soane’s drawing room, where she would have taken tea, written letters and received guests. The room was decorated in her own style, with paintings of her children and family group as well as pictures that she liked. These included a beautiful representation of all the flowers in Shakespeare, and several sketches of Shakespearean characters. The next room was her bedroom, kept as it was for several years after her death by a heartbroken Soane, but eventually he turned it into a magnificent display room for his architectural models. The centrepiece was a very impressive model of a semi-excavated Pompeii, and surrounding this, on a beautiful wooden frame, were several models of notable classical buildings in both cork (for ruined buildings) and plaster of Paris (for models of buildings as-new). On the bottom of the stand were models of Soane’s own buildings, emphasising the inspiration Soane took from the classical world.
Following this we entered Soane’s bathroom, an elaborately decorated room with a grandfather clock (!) in the corner. The room contained an actual bath, and there were hot water pipes on the wall, but it is uncertain exactly how the system worked. After Soane’s death, the bath was sealed up at his request, and when it was opened after some years had passed it was found to contain a number of effects, such as pictures and documents, though none of these contained anything groundbreaking.
Next to the bathroom was Soane’s bedroom, although the bed there was not an original (that had been sold) but was one that had come from Pitzhanger Manor, his country house. Finally, we were led out of the apartments via a corridor decorated with lots of art and two mummified cats, which apparently were supposed to be lucky.
Changes have recently been announced to the Tours of the Private Apartments – the number of tours has been increased and you no longer need to book online, but can turn up on the day. The tours will continue to be free, as is entrance to the museum itself. It is definitely worth making the effort to go on a tour – it’s hugely interesting.