Despite having worked in Bloomsbury on and off for the past two-and-a-half years, it’s taken me the dickens of a long time to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum. This was an omission I finally had the opportunity to correct when I was called by Seb (
) who is this week’s Special Guest Star. He was looking to do something cultural, and a lightbulb lit up above my head (I was standing under the light fitting at the time).
And so it was that we headed to the Museum. It seems to have been fashionable until fairly recently for rich people to utilise their insane amounts of time and money to accumulate random collections of stuff. The Wellcome Collection (which has been previously mentioned in these august pages) was developed in a similar fashion and even the British Museum owes its beginnings to the collections of Sir Hans Sloane.
Sir John Soane was an architect who is today most famous for designing the Bank of England (well, actually, he’s probably most famous for the Museum, but let’s pretend). He also designed the Freemasons’ Hall and the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, and submitted a proposal for rebuilding the Houses of Parliament in a Neo-Classical style, which was passed over in favour of Charles Barry’s Gothic design. A good thing in my opinion – I’m fine with Neo-Classical architecture, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And, of course, he designed the Museum itself.
The Classical era was really Soane’s bag, and his Museum is a collection of bits and pieces from all over the ancient world. It’s as much a museum of the late 18th/early 19th centuries as it is of the Classical world, and the architecture alone is worth a gander. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, so I’ve had to swipe pictures from the Wikipedia article.
Fortunately, one of the conditions of Soane’s will was that the Museum should be preserved in as close as possible to the condition it was in when he died, so this 1864 engraving is still pretty current. Apart from the fact that, like most Victorian engravings, it makes out that the space depicted is far larger than it actually is. Seriously, they all do that. Were the Victorians really tiny or what?
Anyway, above is the Sepulchral Chamber, wherein is kept the sarcophagus of the late Pharoah Seti I. The Roman statue looking down is Apollo Belvedere, whose figleaf is on crooked (seriously, you can totally see his gentlemen’s prerogatives). Also of note is the large selection of Hogarth paintings, including the now-legendary The Rake’s Progress, and we rather liked the jewelery display as well. To remind you of who Soane actually was, several of his architectural models and designs have been preserved and put on display – you can see his designs for the Bank of England and the Houses of Parliament upstairs.
The Museum describes itself as “perfect” in a display on its future plans, which I think is perhaps a bit up itself. I mean, it’s a pretty good museum and a nice way to spend an hour or so, but I wouldn’t call it “perfect.” The layout is a little cramped in places, several of the exhibits are unlabelled and the cases are pretty hard to break into. Still, we enjoyed it, and in between making smart-arse remarks about the displays, I think we really learnt something, too.
Interesting fact: Sir John Soane’s tomb was the inspiration for the red phone box – Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the phone box, was a Trustee of the Museum.
Feeling in need of further culture, and some light refreshment, we made our way to Fitzrovia. Our specific aim was a pub called the Fitzroy, which, as you may have worked out, was the pub that gave its name to the area. At one time there was also a pub around here called the Bastard Arms on the site of the Tower Tavern, so we could have ended up with a place called Bastardia. There now seems to be a concerted by people with basically no soul to rename the place Noho, because it’s north of Soho, because New York has a SoHo and a NoHo and because they’re stupid. Seriously, even Bastardia is better than Noho.
Anyway, yes, the Fitzroy. It was named after Charles Fitzroy, 1st Baron Southampton, whose ancestor was the illegitimate son of Charles II (hence the fact that Fitzrovia is sometimes called Bastardia). The pub gaimed fame in the 20th century for being a boho hangout frequented by Augustus John, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Michael Bentine, Nina Hamnett and the man George Orwell among others. In the 1950s it gained further notoriety as a gay hangout, and a 1955 raid found no less than fifty rent boys. It’s now a Sam Smith’s, by whom I must emphasise I am not being sponsored (hint, hint). I rather liked it, but Seb is not a fan of the stout. A sure sign that you’ve had too much is when you find yourself looking at the photo of Virginia Woolf and thinking, “Yeah, I would.”
- The Wellcome Collection, another random accumulation by a guy with a lot of money.
- A previous visit to Fitzrovia.