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Domus Redivivus in 19th-c. London: Sir John Soane's Well-Stuffed House-Museum

Ann Kuttner

I consider here the famous House Museum in Lincoln Fields, London, of the Neo-Classical British architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) as a singular domus.  The House displayed in orderly fashion an enormous number of pictures, works on paper, and a vast library. But the Museum was a sprawling collection of antiquities and casts, supplemented by modern Neo-Classical works, in heterodox assemblage of no discernable governing order within a labyrinth of fantasy architectural spaces. Airy residential rooms conveyed what Soane could design for clients as a Neo-Classical architect (the salon’s deep ‘Pompeian red’ spoke to his antiquarian up-to-dateness). In contrast, the Museum expressed the antique revival differently. Here, many of the objects were Greco-Roman yet the curating spaces were not classicizing, the overall effect more passionate connoisseurship than rational antiquarianism. 

     Nothing could have been more Roman in Soane and his elite contemporaries than the conviction that a house and its decors express the persona of the inhabitant. Soane was son of a bricklayer with enormous social and professional ambitions; simply to be a collector spoke of acquired status and innate abilities. His homes advertised this with a certain urgency: before he came to Lincoln Fields, he had rebuilt Pitzhanger “Manor-house” as a country villa, housing his first collections, with a ‘classical ruin’ as a decorative annex flagging not only his architectural esthetic, but also his gentrification. On first approach the new house in London spoke similarly of the owner; replica Erechtheion caryatids adorned the Italianate façade, hinting the antiquities within, and embedded Gothic column bases foretold those collections’ heterodox assemblage and eclectic Gothic touches.

      Inside the Museum, statuary remains, urns and architectural fragments (the latter befitting the architect who threw open the house to students), and as many or more casts, were piled high and low in a bewildering complex of interlocked spaces from crypt to uppermost story. There is no classical serenity in the vision of these fragments of a visual culture usually held to exemplify lucid calm, this bricolage is a world away from the spacious gallery effects of aristocratic residences like those Soane often designed. The Museum's tension between vocabulary and syntax, as it were, is exemplified in the crowded multi-story shaft called the Dome, whose dominant juxtaposition is that of Soane's own classicized bust gazing at the Apollo Belvedere who aloofly governs the visual tumult.

      How can we make further sense of this melange of classicizing orthodoxy and heterodoxy, by  "an accidental romantic" (the subtitle for Darley's Soane monograph)? Elsner (1994) saw a thematic of archeological profusion, its conceptual cipher the cork model of Pompeii as then excavated in the Model Room. There are further hints for how Soane was fascinated by order in disorder, the excavation of an architectural environment of timeless excellence, and his commitment to the very Roman belief that what you own says who you are. A strange 1812 essay, "Curious Hints of My House in Lincoln Fields" envisions our site ruined an eon hence. Observers con what's left of ancient stone and plaster decors, the façade caryatids, the weird inner architecture – is this a sanctuary? Then Soane has his archeologist guess right: a neo-classical ‘Artist and Architect’ – and professor – put together the collection as invitation to an archaeology of the collector, and the classical fragment invited a partially classicizing architectural re-construction.

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Re-Creating the House of Pansa

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