Archaeological Speculations: Soane’s Museum of the Mysteries

To coincide with our exhibition on Alan Sorrell, Dr Ian Jenkins writes the first in our series of ‘Archaeological Speculations’, in which we contemplate Sorrell’s drawings as part of a fascinating history of archaeological representations and ideas, including that of our own dear Soane.


Reconstruction drawing, pencil, gouache and ink on paper, squared with notations
Reconstruction drawing, pencil, gouache and ink on paper, squared with notations

The Soane Museum’s current show of work by the archaeological illustrator Alan Sorrell has prompted me to look again at my much treasured copy of Motel of the Mysteries, a book by David Macaulay, who is himself an archaeological draughtsman. Set in the future, MOM is an hilarious account of a spoof excavation of a Motel, buried in a blizzard of Junk Mail that knocks out civilisation across large parts of North America.

Unfamiliar with the fixtures and fittings of a now ancient bathroom, the excavators identify everything they find as the paraphernalia of ritual. A loo brush, for example, becomes a sacred sprinkler, as the finds-catalogue explains:

'This beautifully crafted instrument was formed entirely of plastic. Once it had been dipped into the water of the sacred urn, it was shaken over the whole chamber. This represented the symbolic cleansing of the eternal home'.

The narrative draws heavily on Howard Carter’s dramatic discovery of a certain Egyptian Pharaoh’s tomb. What else, therefore, should the Motel entrance sign say than Toot’ n ’c’ mon?

There are echoes in MOM of Soane’s own caprice in commissioning drawings from J M Gandy that show his Bank of England as a ruin of the future. Soane’s treatise 'Crude Hints towards an History of My House', invents an antiquary of the future who speculates as to the original function of the ruined building – was it a temple or possibly a tomb?


Architectural Ruin: A Vision, a painting by J M Gandy, showing the Bank of England as a ruin of the future
Architectural Ruins: A Vision, by Joseph Michael Gandy, 1798


Tutankhamen’s tomb and its contents are a unique survival. As the comedian Eddie Izzard once remarked, all too often archaeology is an exercise in low walls. Alan Sorrell made a living out of, so to speak, reconstructing low walls. Where walls may rise up, though, in Alan Sorrell’s rather gloomy world of remote antiquity, skies tend to hang down.

Lowering skies with clouds swollen with rain feature often in Sorrell’s reconstructions. It is pleasing therefore to find another side to the artist in a drawing purchased recently by the British Museum. Here is Sorrell sketching the western approach into the Athenian Acropolis with its Propylaea gateway and, projecting on the right, the Ionic temple of Athena Nike (Victory)  The heavy wooden scaffolding was erected under the authority of Anastasios Orlandos for his reconstruction of the cross wall of the west wall of the Propylaea.

Sorrell’s sunny day on the Acropolis is just one of many surprises in a thoughtful exhibition of his work. Rain or shine, Sorrell will emerge from this reassessment as a more painterly artist than is generally supposed. The stylised yet melancholy air of many of his non-archaeological drawings is quintessentially English and will award him the place he deserves among the pantheon of our native ruralists.

Here is the memory of summers past

Here is the promise of summer to come.

Dr Ian Jenkins OBE is a Senior Curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum as well as a Trustee of the Soane Museum.  'Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed' runs from 25 October 2013 until 25 January 2014 and the book accompanying the exhibition, 'Alan Sorrell: The Life and Works of an English Neo-Romantic' is available to buy from the Museum Shop and online, priced £25.

To complement the exhibition, 'Time's Ruin: the Reconstruction of Alan Sorrell' is a study day symposium being held on Friday 15th November, organised by Liss Fine Art. Exploring the artistic climate of England during Sorrell's lifetime, speakers include Sacha Llewellyn, Peyton Skipwith, Sara Perry, Mike Pitts, Alan Powers and Richard Sorrell and will cover Sorrell's best-known work in historical reconstruction, his education as an artist in London and Rome, and the cultural context of Neo-Romanticism. Tickets cost £40 (students £20) and can be bought via Eventbrite

Posted on 07 November 2013 in Exploring Our Exhibitions
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