‘Crude Hints’

In 1812-13, while Soane was rebuilding No.13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, he wrote a description of it, 'Crude Hints Towards an history of my house', in which he imagines it as a ruined building.  Helen Dorey explains why.

In Crude Hints towards an history of my house, Soane, in the guise of An Antiquary, imagines his home as a future ruin inspected by visitors speculating on its origins and function.  His home was at the time a demolition site evolving into a completed building, but in his description Soane preferred to envisage it as a finished building mouldering into ruin. 

Soane speculates first as to whether the house will be interpreted as a Roman temple (perhaps dedicated to Jupiter), a burial site, a convent or monastery or a magician's lair?  He notes that the ruins are supposed by antiquarians to have been enlarged at different times and formed from the ruins of others - this is in fact true to an extent as Soane's buildings in Lincoln's Inn Fields were built over a number of years and on the ruins of those he pulled down to make way for them.  The 'clues' to the origins of the building which are presented for the most part relate closely to Soane's existing building and his collections.  The ammonite fossils on the rear roofs are interpreted as symbols of 'Jupiter Ammon' and the cast of the Apollo Belvedere in the Museum seen as perhaps depicting the founder of the building, a magician or necromancer, turned into stone.  The Museum itself is interpreted variously as a chapel or as a place of burial whilst the windowless top-lit staircase is seen as a prison, similar to one of Piranesi's nightmare imaginary visions in his Carceri.  Two caryatids in the courtyard are seen as possible clues to the Greek origin of the building - perhaps supporting part of the roof of a peristyle.  The tone is deliberately antiquarian with the Monument Court referred to in several places by the Latin cavaedium (in various spellings) and the occasional use of archaic words such as yclept and burded.

Drawing of the Catacombs in Soane's Museum, showing cinerary urns stacked on shelves

Watercolour of the Catacombs in the basement of No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1825


Soane's vision of his home as a ruin is that of a man imbued with memories of the great ruins of antiquity which he had seen in Italy during his Grand Tour.  The basement is envisaged as a series of subterranean crypts and catacombs, entered only through a small aperture from above - thought by some to be a coal hole (a suggestion Soane ridicules in his antiquarian guise - in fact the aperture at the back of the building was for lowering barrels into the cellar from the road behind) whilst the carved blocks resembling the lids of cinerary urns on the rear facade remind him of a place of burial.  A reference to the absence of 'burded cypresses' shows that Soane had in mind Roman imperial burial sites - an idea which perhaps led on to his speculation that the niches on his rustic rear facade might have contained statues of the twelve Caesars.  Fragmentary inscriptions, like those scattered amongst the ruins of Rome, are discovered on the site.

The house as envisaged in Crude Hints partially existed only in Soane's imagination.  Soane  seems to elide the building as it was being constructed with an idea for a much more grandiose scheme which was in his mind at the time but not drawn up until January 1813 (see image below).  Among the clues to this is the passage referring to a striking example of an open loggia about the centre of the north front of this place [Lincoln's Inn Fields] where an attempt has been made with two old houses to form one united mass of building and to produce this effect a grand portico is introduced similar to those of the ancient temples.   There is also a reference to an external ionic colonnade which may relate to this design.  While Soane is writing a fusion is taking place in his mind of existing designs for his evolving building, the reality of the construction site and his collections and ideas for the future.

Drawing of facade for No.13 Lincoln's Inn Fields

Design for an extended elevation for 13-15 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, drawn by Joseph Michael Gandy, 1813.  This drawing is an imaginary scheme for a much more grandiose design for the centre of the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields than was actually built.  Mr and Mrs Soane can be seen waving from the balcony of No.13


Most crucially, Crude Hints also allowed Soane to present his own motives for the setting up of his museum as part of the speculation.  The Antiquary relates that some have supposed the origin of the strange and mixed assemblage of casts and fragments in the Museum might have been for the advancement of Architectural knowledge among students who had no means of visiting Greece and Italy, giving them better ideas of ancient Works than would be conveyed through the medium of drawings or prints.  The visitor is urged to imagine the ruin as the dwelling of an artist, architect or painter.  If an architect, he continues, thus we throw new light on the subject and account most satisfactorily for that great assemblage of ancient fragments in the interior of the building which must have been placed there for the advancement and knowledge of ancient art.  This represents a summary of Soane's own first thoughts about establishing an Academy of Art.  He wrote elsewhere that On my appointment to the Professorship I began to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and at his lecture on 6th January 1812 he had announced publicly to his Royal Academy students that they could visit his house the day before and the day after his lectures to inspect his collection. Soane was also only too aware that the resources of the Royal Academy were somewhat inadequate - because of this he had himself as a student in the 1770s used William Chambers' personal library for study. 

By this time too, his sons John and George clearly had no interest in following him into the architectural profession or in fulfilling his dream of founding an architectural dynasty and so he needed to find a purpose for his rapidly growing collection. He had a genuine wish to benefit architectural education and believed that young architects unable to take a Grand Tour needed to see objects in three dimensions, through the medium of casts and fragments, as well as prints and drawings. 

Soane's house was essentially a visual version of his Royal Academy lectures and although Crude Hints represents a vision of it as a mouldering ruin, it also encapsulated his admirable vision for the future of his museum as an 'Academy of Architecture'.


The full version of Helen Dorey's commentary on Crude Hints can be read in Visions of Ruin: Architectural fantasies & designs for garden follies, exhibition catalogue, Sir John Soane's Museum, 1999.

This article is from the spring 2013 edition of The SOANE Magazine, which is free to all members of the Soane Supporters’ Circle.

Posted on 07 August 2013 in The SOANE Magazine
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