Hidden Masterpieces (9 March – 5 June 2022) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of the finest works amongst the drawings collected by Sir John Soane. These are usually kept in locked drawers and among carefully stored volumes at Sir John Soane’s Museum, but this spring, a selection of highlights will be on display for all to enjoy.

The below online exhibition offers a companion to Hidden Masterpieces, on display at the Soane until 5 June. Both the online and physical exhibitions provide opportunities to explore some of the highlights from among Sir John Soane’s 30,000-strong drawings collection – which range from the medieval period to the nineteenth century and represent subjects from across the world.

Plan your visit here, or explore our digital exhibition below.

Image (top): Adam office (Giuseppe Manocchi), Harewood House, Yorkshire, unexecuted ceiling for the circular dressing room, 1767.

Curator of Drawings and Books Dr Frances Sands highlights a selection of extraordinary pieces from Hidden Masterpieces.

Illumination showing the construction of the Tower of Babel within a Book of Hours, after 1512

Pen, coloured washes and gold on parchment
SM volume 137/26 recto
Photograph: Geremy Butler

From the medieval period, Books of Hours were used by Catholics to instruct their prayer at particular canonical times of day. The wealthier the owner, the more opulently a volume would have been illustrated with illuminations. This example belonged to Joanna of Aragon, Queen of Naples (1478-1518) and is filled with beautiful illustrations coloured with expensive pigments and gilded using gold leaf. Illuminations within Books of Hours invariably depict biblical scenes. Here we are shown the construction of the Tower of Babel, an origin myth explaining the existence of different languages. The narrative begins after the Great Flood, when a united human population, all speaking the same language, built a city including a tower tall enough to reach heaven. To prevent this encroachment, God confused their language and scattered them across the world. As such, this illumination depicts the tower’s construction by a diverse array of figures. It is one of the earliest known images showing construction in progress, a type of drawing which Soane found particularly useful in teaching his architectural apprentices.

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721)
Elevation of an unexecuted chimneypiece, designed for Hampton Court Palace, Richmond, 1689-94

Pen, brown ink, pencil, pink-brown, yellow ochre and grey washes on laid paper
SM volume 110/26
Photograph: Hugh Kelly

In 1689 King William III and Queen Mary II commissioned the architect Sir Christopher Wren to make alterations to Hampton Court Palace. Responsibility for the ornamental interiors was given to the woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. Unusual at the time, Gibbons designed his carvings on paper and there are around 50 surviving examples of his design drawings, the majority of which are held at the Soane Museum within a volume of designs for Hampton Court. Most of Gibbons drawings from that volume – including this example – are for chimneypieces. Gibbons’ drawings do not adhere to the typical draughtsmanship of his time, for example, he used colour to heighten the drama of a drawing, and sometimes to denote medium, rather than as a tool of accurate communication. Indeed, Gibbons was not a trained draughtsman, but his drawings offer an intense fluency and naturalism, utilising shading to depict three-dimensionality. Gibbons’ design drawings are filled with the ornamental motifs of his recognisable style, including cherubs, animals, fruit, foliage trophies and strapwork.

Unknown hand
Plate depicting Mumtaz Mahal within a volume of Indian and Persian miniatures and calligraphy, early eighteenth century

Pen, opaque watercolour, coloured washes and gold on burnished paper
SM volume 145/9
Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama

The painting is found within a volume of Indian and Persian miniatures and calligraphies, produced during the era of the Mughal Empire. It depicts a group of ladies on a garden terrace. The image has previously been identified as depicting Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory the Taj Mahal was built. However, new insights gained as a result of this exhibition and ongoing research suggest otherwise. There is a Persian inscription below reading Nur Jahan Begum [emperor Jahangir's wife from 1608-27]. The painting was made in the century when it became commonplace to identify idealised portraits of sensuous women as 'Nur Jahan'. In her own time she was never portrayed in this way, but an unusual seventeenth-century portrait of Shah Jahan's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, dated 1628, shows her bare to the waist, not unlike this beautiful woman (Freer Gallery of Art, F.2005.4). 

In the below clip, Dr Ursula Weekes, Independent Art Historian and Visiting Lecturer at Courtauld Institute of Art, London, speaks about the Sir John Soane’s Album of Indian and Persian miniatures and calligraphy.

Sir William Chambers (1723-96)
View of an unexecuted mausoleum for Frederick, Prince of Wales, probably intended for Kew Gardens, Richmond, 1751

Pen, pencil and coloured washes on laid paper
SM 17/7/11
Photograph: Geremy Butler

Sir William Chambers was the son of a Scottish merchant established in Sweden. At 16 he joined the Swedish East India Company, voyaging as far as China, but after 11 years he decided to retire from trade and focus on an architectural career. He enrolled at Blondel’s École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, followed by a five-year Grand Tour in Italy. After settling in London in 1755, Chambers became a favourite of the Royal family. This design was made speculatively, before Chambers’ acquaintance with the Royal family, and during his time in Italy. The design shows a mausoleum for Frederick, Prince of Wales, the son of King George II, who had died young, in 1751. The drawing is of a very high quality, probably produced for presentation or exhibition, and had clearly been inspired by centrally-planned Roman mausolea, such as those to Hadrian and Cecelia Metella, which Chambers knew from Italy. It has been suggested that Chambers's use of perspective and an idyllic landscape was influenced by the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts and the pensionnaires of the French Academy in Rome. The design was never executed, probably because such a scheme would have been ruinously expensive to build.

Giuseppe Manocchi (c.1731-82) for Robert and James Adam
Plan of a ceiling for the circular dressing room at Harewood House, West Yorkshire, 1767

Pen, pencil and coloured washes on laid paper
SM Adam volume 11/148
Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama

This drawing exemplifies the extraordinarily high standard of draughtsmanship within the Adam office, a result of the Adam brothers never taking apprentices, and instead employing skilled professional draughtsmen from across Europe. The artist, Giuseppe Manocchi, was the Adam brothers’ master draughtsman for eight years. Having studied the work of Raphael in Rome, Manocchi specialised in foliate and figurative motifs, which he introduced to the Adam brothers, along with the vibrant colours which became a signature of their interior decorative style. The drawing offers an unexecuted scheme for the domed ceiling of the circular dressing room – one of two dressing rooms adjoining the state bedchamber – at Harewood House. The Harewood estate had been in the possession of the wealthy West-Indian plantation-owning Lascelles family since 1739, originally with a seventeenth-century house which was rebuilt from 1759.

In the below clip, Dr Frances Sands discusses the Adam drawings collection at Sir John Soane’s Museum.

George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and office of George Dance the Younger
Section through a library for Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, London, 1788-94

Pen, pencil and coloured washes on laid paper
SM D3/3/5
Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama

Lansdowne House had been built from 1760 to designs by Robert Adam for the politician and bibliophile Lord Bute. Adam included a large library wing at the rear of the house for Bute's extensive collection of books. However, following Bute's retirement, he sold the house in 1765 to the 1st Marquess Lansdowne who was more interested in sculpture than books, and so began half a century of indecision about whether the wing should be used as a library or as a sculpture gallery. After Adam's time, four other architects were consulted before George Dance's scheme for a library, seen here, was finally executed in 1788–91, only to be demolished when the space was transformed into a sculpture gallery in 1816–19 to designs by Robert Smirke. Although it was short-lived, Dance's richly frescoed library was extremely fine, and modelled on the Roman interiors then being excavated at Pompeii. This drawing was acquired by Soane in 1836 when he purchased the entire Dance drawings collection from Dance’s son for £500.

Office of Sir John Soane
Progress view of the west front of Dulwich Picture Gallery under construction, 1812

Pencil and coloured washes on wove paper
SM 65/4/47
Photograph: Geremy Butler

This so called ‘progress drawing’ gives a view of Dulwich Picture Gallery under construction, drawn at some time during the summer of 1812, and includes some fascinating details such as the scaffolding, wooden arch proformas and the carcase of the famous mausoleum. The Gallery was built to house a collection of paintings that had belonged to Noel Desenfans and Sir Peter Francis Bougeois RA. Following their deaths, Dulwich College received both the art collection and the sum of £3,000 in order to refurbish or rebuild their gallery, as well as building a mausoleum to the benefactors. Desenfans and Bourgeois had been Soane’s friends and former patrons and so Soane took the commission to build a new gallery for the College without a fee, working on the project from 1811–13.

In the below clip, Dr Frances Sands examines architectural education in the Soane office and the production of progress drawings.

Henry Parke (1790-1835), an apprentice of Sir John Soane
Royal Academy lecture drawing showing the plan of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1817

Pen, pencil and coloured washes on wove paper
SM 24/9/1
Photograph: Geremy Butler

In 1806 Soane was elected as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. To fulfill his responsibilities, he wrote twelve lectures detailing the history of architecture, and exploring the best and worst examples. However, Soane’s teaching activities coincided with the Napoleonic Wars, preventing his students from exploring the architectural delights of other countries. To combat this issue, Soane philanthropically commissioned his office to produce over 1,000 large-scale drawings to illustrate his lectures. Some of the lecture drawings were made from observation of artworks, engravings and drawings in Soane’s collection, while others were made from life. In 1817 Soane sent three of his office apprentices on a miniature Grand Tour of Wiltshire, both as a means of exposing the young men to the architecture of that county, and to inform a series of Royal Academy lecture drawings illustrating Stonehenge. Unsurprisingly, the apprentice Henry Parke was trusted with this task, as he was Soane's second longest serving pupil, and became an extremely talented draughtsman. Here the arrangement of the stones is shown with great care, and they are coloured to delineate the larger stones that remained standing. Moreover, lines are given to offer an archaeo-astronomical explanation of the stones’ alignment.

29 March Sir John Soane's collection of architectural drawings; online talk, 6.30pm. Tickets.

3 April Talk and walking tour: the lost palaces of the Strand; starting at the Soane, 2pm. Tickets.

6 April Curator tour of Hidden Masterpieces; at the Soane, 1.30pm. Tickets.

6 April Easter egg crafts family drop-in workshop; at the Soane. 11am. Tickets.

7 April Easter holiday workshop: handmade illustrated books; at the Soane. 11am. Tickets.

9 April Magic moulds family workshop; at the Soane. 11am. Tickets.

14 April Art That Made Us: Soane's chronicle of world architecture; online talk, 6.30pm. Tickets.

20 April Soane's chronicle of world architecture: drawings session; tour at the Soane, 11am and 2pm. Tickets.

26 April Soane's Indian Album: a hidden treasure of the late Mughal era; online talk with Dr Ursula Weekes, 6.30pm. Tickets.

21 May Bookbinding workshop with Helen Perry; all-day workshop at the Soane, 10am. Tickets.

Download our Hidden Masterpieces family trail