Permanently Magical: Restoration and Renewal of Sir John Soane’s Museum
2 July - 4 September 2010
Your Museum is permanently magical, for the enchantments of art are eternal. Some in poems have raised fine architectural edifices, but most rare have been those who have discovered when they had finished their house, if such a house can ever be said to be finished, that they had built a poem. All this you have accomplished…What the nation wanted your hand has bestowed.
- Letter to Sir John Soane from Isaac D'Israeli in 1835
Sir John Soane's Museum is a unique survival of a Regency town house and gentleman architect's collection of antiquities, paintings, drawings, books and other works of art and virtù displayed in situ where they were intended to be seen by their owner. Many of these objects are of world-class importance in their own right, such as the collection of Hogarths, Canalettos, Adam drawings or the magnificent alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I. No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields is a rare survival of a London building by Sir John Soane, one of the most innovative and visionary architects this country has produced.
The uniqueness of No 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields is largely predicated upon the 1833 Act of Parliament, drawn up by Sir John Soane some four years before his death, which left this unparalleled house, together with its collections, to the British nation as the smallest but certainly one of the best loved of our national museums (the Museum had been open to Soane's Royal Academy students and the public from 1809). The Act stipulated that:
[The] Trustees [of the Museum] and their successors shall not (except in cases of absolute necessity) suffer the arrangement in which the said Museum or Collection or Library shall respectively be left by the said Sir John Soane at the time of his decease to be altered.
However, time and the perceived necessities that arose from the transformation of a home into a public museum have resulted in certain changes. Notably, Sir John Soane's private apartments and the former Model Room on the second floor were transformed into a Curator's apartment, and later offices, shortly after Soane's death on 20 January 1837. In 1889-90 the New Picture Room was constructed, along with the modification of the Ante-Room, to the design of James Wild, then Curator, to display parts of the collection including the Canalettos. These had been removed from their original location in Soane's Picture Room. Wild also changed the dimensions of Soane's Shakespeare Recess. In 1917 the Tivoli Recess, the first 'gallery' in Britain devoted to the work of contemporary British sculptors, was converted into a lavatory. Damage incurred during World War II resulted in the loss of some stained glass.
This exhibition will focus upon the final and most exciting stage of the restoration of the Soane, which will see these areas of the Museum returned to their January 1837 state as closely as is possible. This is a project that started in 1987 with the restoration of the North and South Drawing Rooms of No. 13, which from 1919 to 1970 served as the Museum's Library. Between 1990 and 1995 the largest restoration project was undertaken to date. The five phase project saw the reistaement and restoration of various parts of the Museum including the Shakespeare Recess, the Monks Cell, the Study and Dressing Room, the restoration and cleaning of the façades of No.'s 12 and 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields and, in 1995, the creation of the Soane Gallery for temporary exhibitions. This was followed, from 2002 to 2004 with the restoration of the Museum's three courtyards, culminating with the erection of the recreated Pasticcio in the Monument Court in 2004. This year, 2010, saw the reinstatement of a sculptural arrangement (removed in the 19th century) on the west wall of the Sepulchral Chamber, the centrepiece of which is the colossal bronze bust of the god Pluto.
But the project is also designed to improve visitor facilities, ensuring that pressure is also taken off the fragile historical spaces of the Museum. A new visitor entrance and shop in No. 12 will take pressure off the Entrance Hall of No. 13. A new lift will enable disabled visitors to access the first and second floors. A new exhibition gallery and Study Room will allow the Museum to show aspects of the collection which are not ordinarily on public display. It will also allow the collection and Museum to be more effectively used for educational purposes - a function of the Museum that was very much Sir John Soane's intention. New conservation facilities will ensure that the precious works of art and other objects in the Museum can continue to be looked after in future. These aspects, together with the expertise of the various craftspeople, curators, conservators and architects who are working on this exceptional project, form the focus of this exhibition.
As well as restoring the fabric of the building and conserving its contents, the project will maintain the unique atmosphere of the Museum, ensuring that Sir John Soane's Museum remains 'permanently magical' for generations to follow.