Essential Architecture-  London

Soane Museum


Sir John Soane


13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP


1812 to 1834


Mannerist NeoClassical




House and Museum
  The facade of Sir John Soane's House (No. 12) circa 1812. The loggias were later glazed in.
  The sarcophagus of Seti I at the centre of Soane's Museum at the back of the house, as shown in the Illustrated London News in 1864.
  This basement level plan of No. 13, including the extension behind No.14, shows the conventional domestic offices to the front (bottom of plan), and the unique museum at the back (Soane's wine cellar, later converted into his 'Crypt' is shown in the centre of the rear premises). No.12, Soane's first house, which is to the left, and where the Museum's temporary exhibition space is today located, is not shown.
  The breakfast room as shown in the Illustrated London News 1864.
Sir John Soane's Museum (often abbreviated to the Soane Museum) is a museum of architecture, and was formerly the house and studio of the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. It holds many drawings and models of his projects and the collections of paintings, drawings and antiquities that he assembled. The Museum is located in the Holborn district of central London, England, overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Soane demolished and rebuilt three houses in succession on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. He began with No. 12 (between 1792 and 1794), which is externally a conventional plain brick house typical of the period. After becoming Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane purchased No. 13, the house next door, today the Museum, and rebuilt it in two phases in 1808-09 and 1812. In 1808-09 he constructed his drawing office and "museum" on the site of the former stable block at the back, using primarily top lighting. In 1812 he rebuilt the front part of the site, adding a projecting Portland Stone facade to the basement, ground and first floor levels and the centre bay of the second floor. Originally this formed three open loggias, but Soane glazed the arches during his lifetime. Once he had moved into No. 13 Soane rented out his former home at No. 12 (on his death it was left to the nation along with No. 13 - the intention being that the rental income would fund the running of the Museum). After completing No.13, Soane set about treating the building as an architectural laboratory, continually remodelling the interiors. In 1823, when he was over 70, he purchased a third house, No. 14, which he rebuilt in 1823-24. This project allowed him to construct a picture gallery, linked to No.13, on the former stable block of No.14. The front main part of this third house was treated as a separate dwelling (perhaps almost a speculative development!) and let as an investment - it was not internally connected to the other buildings.

The Museum was established during Soane's own lifetime by a private Act of Parliament in 1833, which took effect on Soane's death in 1837. The Act required that No 13 be maintained 'as nearly as possible' as it was left at the time of Soane's death and by and large that has been the case. Towards the end of the 19th century a break-through was made to re-connect the rear rooms of No 12 through to the Museum in No. 13 and since 1969 No 12 has been run by the Trustees as part of the Museum, housing the research library, offices and, since 1995, the 'Soane Gallery' for temporary exhibitions. The Museum's Trustees remained completely independent, relying only on Soane's original endowment, until 1947. Since that date the Museum has received an annual Grant-in-Aid British Government (this now comes via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). The Soane Museum is now a national centre for the study of architecture. In 1997 the Trustees purchased the main house at No. 14 with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund: the house will be restored in 2006 to enable the Museum to expand its educational activities.

The architectural historian Sir John Summerson was curator of the Museum from 1945 to 1984.


The most famous spaces in the house are those in the Museum at the rear. These are mostly toplit and provide some idea in miniature form of the ingenious lighting contrived by Soane for the toplit banking halls at the Bank of England. The ingeniously designed Picture Gallery has walls composed of large folding panels that allow it to house three times as many items as a space of this size could normally accommodate. When visiting, it is necessary to request for the panels to be opened and wait for a group to gather before this is done.

There are half a dozen living rooms in Nos.12 and 13, many of them highly unusual, but often in subtle ways. The domed ceiling of the Breakfast Room, inset with convex mirrors, has influenced architects from around the world. The library reflects the influence of gothic design and is decorated in a rich 'pompeiian' red. The Study contains a collection of Roman architectural fragments and the two external courtyards, the Monument Court and Monk's Yard contain an array of architectural fragments, Classical in the Monument Court with its central column or 'pasticcio' representing Architecture and Gothic in the Monk's Yard, filled with medieval stonework from the Palace of Westminster.


Soane's collections included approximately 30,000 architectural drawings, ranging from a book of drawings of Elizabethan houses by John Thorpe to the largest collection anywhere of Robert Adam's original drawings. There are also architectural models. 15 of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's original sketches of Paestum hang in the Picture Room. The collection of Neo-classical sculpture collection includes both plaster and terracotta works by John Flaxman.

From the painting collection, the best known are by William Hogarth: the eight canvases of A Rake's Progress and the four of his famous political satire An Election based on the Oxford Parliamentary Election of 1754. There are also three major works by Canaletto.

The alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I lies in the basement of the museum in what Soane called the 'Sepulchral Chamber'. After it was added to the collection a three day party was held to celebrate the event.
The architect Sir John Soane's house, museum and library at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields has been a public museum since the early 19th century. Soane demolished and rebuilt three houses in succession on the north side of Lincoln's Inn Fields, beginning with No. 12 between 1792 and 1794, moving on to No. 13, re-built in two phases in 1808-9 and 1812, and concluding with No. 14, rebuilt in 1823-24.

On his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 Soane began to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane's collection was being referred to as an 'Academy of Architecture'.

In 1833 Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament to settle and preserve the house and collection for the benefit of 'amateurs and students' in architecture, painting and sculpture. On his death in 1837 the Act came into force, vesting the Museum in a board of Trustees who were to continue to uphold Soane's own aims and objectives. A crucial part of their brief was to maintain the fabric of the Museum, keeping it 'as nearly as circumstances will admit in the state' in which it was left at the time of Soane's death in 1837 and to allow free access for students and the public to 'consult, inspect and benefit' from the collections. Since 1837, each successive Curator has sought to preserve and maintain Soane's arrangements as he wished. However, over the years changes have been made and the recent Five-Year Restoration programme sought to restore Soane's arrangements and effects where they had been lost.