The first phase of the restoration of the museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields aims to bring three buildings as close to the original vision as possible
The past decade has left few of Britain’s small museums unchanged by building works. Thanks to the largesse of the lottery, institutions that had struggled for years with inadequate disabled access, little or no temporary exhibition space and scarce means of supporting themselves have seen their fabric and fortunes transformed.
Such projects are invariably attended by worries that the cost of new facilities will be a loss of the original institution’s character — that the patient, as it were, might not survive the surgery.
In the case of the Sir John Soane Museum — as gloriously characterful a building as is to be found anywhere in the world — the dangers involved in a programme of expansion were obvious to all from the start.
The delicacy of the operation — which the museum has dubbed “Opening up the Soane” — is reflected in the length of time that it is taking to perform: work began six years ago and will not finish for another three. Earlier this month, however, the scheme’s largest phase completed, bringing about the most significant change to visitors’ experience of the museum since its foundation.
In truth, Opening up the Soane might be better described as a project of reclamation than expansion, being delivered as it is entirely within the demise of Soane’s original property. Crucially, that demise extended beyond 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as he was also the architect and owner of the two houses on either side.
On his death in 1837, he left to the nation both the museum, and its neighbour to the west, No 12, while decreeing that the other bookend property, No 14, be sold to benefit his grandchildren.
No 12 was duly leased out to provide the museum with an income, which it continued to do until the trustees reclaimed it in the 1960s, establishing a research library, conservation facilities and offices there. In 1995, the ground floor of the house was opened to the public, following the restoration of the breakfast parlour, and the adaptation of the adjoining reception room into a temporary exhibition space by means of an Eva Jiricna-designed display system.
The current project owes its existence to an initiative that the trustees undertook shortly thereafter: the purchase of No 14. Soane built this property in the last decade of his life to house offices, which were leased. Of the three buildings, it enjoyed by far the least elaborate suite of interiors presenting the possibility for back-of-house facilities to be moved there from the rooms they occupied in Nos 12 and 13.
Under the stewardship of director, Tim Knox, and the museum’s longtime conservation architect, Julian Harrap, that two-year process of decanting began in 2006, ultimately providing school groups with a much-expanded suite of education facilities on No 14’s lower floors while allowing researchers access to Soane’s library and drawing collection on the floors above.
Attention then turned to No 12. Soane built this house in 1792, living there with his family for eight years before moving first to Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing and then, in 1813, returning to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to occupy the newly completed No 13. The work of an architect in his late thirties, No 12 served as a testbed for formal and decorative ideas that would go on to define his oeuvre. The excitement of the new work lies as much in the reinstatement of a suite of exceptional Soane interiors as it does in the facilities they contain.
Opening up the Soane might be better described as a project of reclamation than one of expansion
The project represents a collaboration between two practices. Harrap has again taken responsibility for decisions affecting the original fabric, while Caruso St John has designed freestanding furniture for the new temporary exhibition galleries (see Culture, page 20) that have been created on the first floor (in rooms vacated by the research library) and for a significantly expanded shop created on the ground floor (in the room previously used for temporary exhibitions).
The shop is the one aspect of the scheme that carries any whiff of a commercial motivation. The museum cannot accommodate more than 75 people at a time, so increasing visitor numbers beyond the current 110,000 a year was never an aim. A café remains notable by its absence and admission both to the museum and temporary exhibitions continues to be free: a position that many small museums would doubtless share were it not for their lack of the lucrative sideline as a rentable evening venue that the Soane’s central London location affords.
It is also a relief to discover that the new access arrangements, while a significant improvement, stop a long way short of rebooting the museum for mass tourism. A lift has been fitted discreetly in No 12, providing proper disabled access for the first time. A further ambition was to relieve No 13’s front hall of the log-jam caused by its multiple roles as entrance, signing-in desk, bag and coat check, and exit. In the new arrangement ambulant visitors are therefore directed first to No 12, where they can register and deposit their possessions before heading back outside and knocking on the door of No 13, just as they have for the past 175 years.
In fact, a visit to the museum remains essentially as it ever was until we finish looking around the drawing room on the first floor. At this point we are directed to a door in one corner, originally for a cupboard, but which now provides access through to the two adjoining temporary galleries.
The general rule in undertaking conservation work at the museum is that everything be returned to the condition Soane left it in on his death, a principle enshrined in the Act of Parliament by which the house was gifted to the nation. However, in the case of the decorative treatment at No 12 that edict has been set aside on the grounds that the house had long been leased out by that point in its history and its decoration most likely bore no relation to Soane’s intentions. The finishes therefore represent Harrap’s attempt to return the house to the appearance it presented in the 1790s when its architect lived there.
The two rooms that now accommodate the temporary galleries served then as Mrs Soane’s bedroom and drawing room. It is the drawing room that we enter first and can’t help but be struck by its colour — a red every bit as piercing as the Turner patent yellow of the room we have just left. Above, a shallow dome is finished to resemble a turbulent sky, its centre punctured by a medusa-head boss complete with gilded snakes. While not as spatially elaborate as its architect’s later domestic interiors, it is nevertheless ripe stuff. Beyond, through double doors, we find the former bedroom: a more chaste affair distinguished primarily through its lavender wallpaper, the edges of which are picked out in a fine Sienna trim. In both rooms, pine floorboards have been left unfinished while joinery has been treated with a strikingly grained, light grey “Harewood” stain.
Jiricna’s display system took the form of a fully-glazed, cruciform cabinet, positioned on the diagonal within its room: as pointed a contrast with Soane’s architecture as any card-carrying modernist could wish for. The new system doesn’t feel the need to signal its contemporaneity anywhere near as stridently. It comprises a family of cabinets and tables which, save for a large table located centrally within each room, back against the walls. Detailed in French polished mahogany with inlays of walnut and mirror, their language is directly inspired by that of Soane’s own furniture. However, the level of technical refinement identifies them clearly as products of the 21st century. Glass doors are frameless with narrow strips of back-painted mirror serving to disguise fixings. Handles have been excised entirely — suction cups are required to gain access.
The shop is the one aspect that carries any whiff of commercial motivation
The largest cabinet is particularly extraordinary. Its glass doors follow the shallow curve of the wall against which it is backed and are each more than two metres by two metres in size. Italian cabinet specialist Goppion has manufactured the furniture for both the galleries and shop, and the architect admits it is hard to think of another company that would have been up to the challenge.
On exiting we are admitted to the newly restored cantilevered staircase, a close cousin of the one next door, but glorying in walls of a sooty glaze that Soane chose in emulation of Rome’s catacombs. In a scheme that is otherwise unwavering in its determination to restore the building, wherever possible, to its original condition, one poignant memento of its later use has been allowed to survive: a hand-painted sign identifies a door on the first floor as that of Mr Whitaker, a 19th century solicitor who hanged himself from the stair when his business collapsed.
On reaching the ground floor we enter the breakfast parlour and finally, through double doors, the shop. The language of this room’s fittings relates closely to the upstairs, although the scale of construction is more conventionally domestic. Perhaps the biggest tribute one can pay it is to note that the room’s character is not ultimately so far from that of the drawing room it once was.The next phase is to include another Caruso St John interior — an interpretation gallery to be created at the rear of No 12 — but its main focus will be the restoration of a suite of Soane rooms on the second floor of No 13, the sleeping quarters and Model Room. Much to look forward to, then, but if ever you needed an excuse to revisit this most wonderful of museums, the magnificent revival of No 12 offers no shortage of reasons.
Architect and lead consultant Julian Harrap Architects
Quantity surveyor D R Nolans & Co
Contractor Fairhurst Ward Abbotts
Gallery & shop furniture Caruso St John Architects
Structural engineer Mann Williams
M&E engineer The Spencer Clarke Partnership
Specialist decoration Hare & Humphreys
Gallery and shop furniture Goppion Spa
Stone repair PAYE Stonework
Mechanical and electrical services Capri Services
Internal lift Axis Elevators
Platform lift Elite Elevators
PV panels MEP Electrical Services
Internal koinery Kestral Joinery