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Produced as part of London Festival of Architecture 2021, this online exhibition explores the Building Archive at Sir John Soane’s Museum. It tells a story through objects of how the building itself has been cared for since Soane's death in 1837.

Introduction TOP

The Building Archive at Sir John Soane’s Museum comprises almost 1,000 items that testify to the life of a building – and how buildings transform over time. The archive, which forms part of the Museum’s collection, exemplifies the care devoted to the Museum since Soane’s death in 1837. Soane’s legacy requires that his house be kept as it was at the time of his death. The Building Archive tells a story of how the building has been looked after and preserved on a day-to-day basis. It also records instances in which Soane’s wishes were disregarded, and lasting – often damaging – changes were made to the building and are still in the process of being reversed.

While the extensive saving of fragments from damaged areas of the building, or from items in the collection, began after the Second World War, the Building Archive was formalised by Peter Thornton and Helen Dorey in 1990, when a 30-year programme of restoration began with work on the rear roofs. During restoration work we preserve as much of Soane’s original building fabric as possible. Where items have decayed beyond repair, we preserve evidence of them in the Building Archive. Since the creation of the Building Archive, we have saved items to provide evidence of the work that has been carried out. This provides a transparent record which will enable future generations to interrogate the research and the decisions that have been made.

Ongoing Protection and Care TOP

Objects including a 19th century feather, a typewriter and a green uniform provide touching testaments to the efforts of the generations of staff who have cared for the Museum daily since 1837. The Building Archive also contains items such as a piece from a skylight guard and part of an incendiary bomb that convey a sense of the threats the Museum has faced, from stones thrown by Victorian loiterers in Whetstone Park to the London Blitz in 1940. Historic firefighting equipment and a fragment of floor cloth show how past protection has enabled the fragile fabric of the interiors of the Soane to survive into the 21st century.


Section of a Victorian metal grille covering the main Dome skylight, removed in 1990, SM X1518
Photo: John Bridges

In the 19th century the narrow mews behind the Museum, Whetstone Park, was a notoriously rough area, frequented by prostitutes. There are numerous records of stones thrown from the street breaking panes of coloured glass in the Museum’s skylights. In February 1868, a wire guard made from ‘extra strong straight lattice’ was supplied to protect the main Dome skylight, along with others for the remainder of the rooflights. Viewed from inside the Museum, these grilles were considered intrusive and cut out some of the natural light so vital to Soane’s interiors. They were removed during the restoration of the rear roofs in 1990 and this piece, the flat top of the Dome guard, was kept for the Building Archive.


Feather from a feather duster

Feather from a feather duster, found behind object M68 in the Museum Corridor in 1995, possibly 19th century, SM X1394
Photo: John Bridges

This wonderfully ephemeral object testifies to the work of those who have cleaned the Museum since 1837. Until after World War II the Museum was closed in the winter and reopened in March. The Curators’ diaries, of which there is an unbroken sequence in the Soane Archives, record the process of employing a small team of three or four men to come for a month and clean the Museum annually, in February, before its reopening in March for the season. Today, we no longer use feather dusters, which can snag, causing damage, and our interiors and works of art are cleaned by trained in-house conservators and Visitor Assistants.


Screwdriver, found behind object M67 in the Museum Corridor on 28 March 2004, 19th century, SM X1908
Photos: John Bridges

Sometimes we find evidence of the Museum’s care in unexpected places. When Martin Holden of Holden Conservation was asked to take down plaster cast M67 in 2004 it initially appeared that the object had not been taken down since it was first installed by Soane’s workmen in the mid-1820s. However, lying in the thick dust behind the cast was this screwdriver, along with a bradawl, and a paintbrush. The screwdriver has a boxwood handle with an owner’s mark scratched into it, while the maker’s name, HEARNSHAW…/ SHEFFIELD, is visible on the metal shaft. Hearnshaw Brothers operated from 1881–1960 from their Sorby Street Works, but this screwdriver appears to be an early tool, either dropped by a workman or perhaps deliberately left behind the cast as a time capsule, preserving a memory of some late 19th century work.  


A branding iron, to brand the initials SM [Soane Museum]

A branding iron, to brand the initials SM [Soane Museum], 1893, SM X277
Photo: John Bridges

This tool was discovered in the Museum’s basement in the 1990s. The Minutes of the Trustees’ meeting held in February 1893 record their resolution ‘that an iron stamp be obtained with which to brand the ladders etc. belonging to the Trustees’. The brand would have been heated in the open fire of one of the kitchen ranges before being used to burn the initials onto the wooden ladders, making it difficult for them to be mistakenly removed from the Museum.


Eight metal fire buckets, in use in Sir John Soane’s Museum until c.2003

Eight metal fire buckets, in use in Sir John Soane’s Museum until c.2003, SM X1526
Photo: John Bridges

Fire prevention is key to ensuring that museum collections remain safe. Until c.2003 these metal buckets stood, filled with water, in various places around the back of the Museum, ready for immediate use if a fire should break out. There is no evidence of fire buckets in use in Soane’s time, but the Trustees were recommended to introduce leather buckets in 1857, and by 1860 ‘red leather’ buckets were in use. These metal buckets may in fact have been acquired during the First World War when ‘12 sand buckets’ were bought and distributed around the Museum in 1915. These rather charming and old-fashioned fire precautions have now been superseded by modern fire extinguishers.


Fragment of floor cloth, early 20th century, SM X1355
Photo: John Bridges

A glimpse of the floor cloth in the lower left corner of a photograph of the North Drawing Room taken by Walter Spiers, the Curator, in 1911
©Sir John Soane’s Museum

Protecting our historic timber floors is an ongoing concern for our conservators, as visitors walk these floors every day that the Museum is open. This seems to have been on the minds of early 20th century curators as well. During this time floor cloth, an early form of linoleum, was used throughout the ground floor of the Museum and in the drawing rooms, and can be seen in early photographs (click the image to see this detail). 

This piece of floor cloth was rescued by Peter Thornton (Curator 1984–95) during restoration work in the late 1990s. Its pattern – scrolling foliage with red stripes at the side – was carefully chosen to echo motifs and colours in the Museum. The use of floor coverings helped to preserve Soane’s original floor boards from damage. Today we protect them with a painted surface that replicates their original scrubbed, light appearance and can be regularly reapplied.


A fragment of the metal casing of an incendiary bomb which came through the North window of the Dining Room during the London blitz in 1940

A fragment of the metal casing of an incendiary bomb which came through the North window of the Dining Room during the London Blitz in 1940, SM X1317
Photo: John Bridges

Sir John Soane’s Museum miraculously survived the Blitz, sustaining only minor damage. However, the Museum remained at risk throughout the war as evidenced by the remnants of an incendiary bomb that flew through a window in 1940. The paper label tied to this fragment, inscribed Sir John Soane's House & Museum / night of September 24-5 1940, records the closest that the building came to disaster. The Curator’s diary for 24 September reads: This night firebomb [shot?] through plyboarding of North window of ground floor Library and burnt hole about 1/6 diam. in carpet. One joist burnt through, but floor being closely pugged it [i.e. fire] did not spread.

That the fire did not spread was fortunate, as the majority of the collection had not yet been evacuated. In fact, the damaged carpet was Soane’s original Axminster. Today the hole burnt in the thick mahogany of the north windowsill by this bomb is still visible – a reminder of that wartime period. 


‘Blue bird’ typewriter used by Miss Dorothy Stroud, Assistant Curator and Inspectress 1945-1984

‘Blue bird’ typewriter used by Miss Dorothy Stroud, Assistant Curator and Inspectress 1945-1984, SM X1378
Photo: John Bridges

This typewriter was the first one owned by the Museum, on which Dorothy Stroud (Assistant Curator and Inspectress 1945–84) worked in the front room on the second floor of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields (now the Model Room). She shared the office with Sir John Summerson (Curator 1945–84). Sir John and Dorothy ran the Museum for almost 40 years and were responsible for restoring and reopening it after the Second World War.


Warehouseman’s coat by Alexandra Workwear Ltd, worn as uniform by warding staff at Sir John Soane’s Museum

Warehouseman’s coat by Alexandra Workwear Ltd, worn as uniform by warding staff at Sir John Soane’s Museum until c.2005, SM X1306
Photo: John Bridges

During the 19th century, visitors to the Soane Museum encountered ‘Attendants’ acting as guardians of the Museum. They were later renamed ‘Warders’ and, since 2015, have been ‘Visitor Assistants’. They provide the first point of contact between a visitor and the Museum and offer oral interpretation since the Museum does not have written labels or panels.

Until 1995, Warders wore dark green knee-length coats, seen here, perhaps introduced after World War II. These were both distinctive and smart for greeting visitors and practical for wearing whilst cleaning in the Museum. Today our Visitor Assistants wear navy blazers with a Soane Museum logo embroidered in burgundy; a navy waistcoat and jumper, or cardigan with a tie; and scarf or bow tie of their choice from the Soane shop. 


Fragments, Research, Reconstruction TOP

No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of the best-documented buildings in the world. Its archives are central to the research that underpins all our restoration work. The Building Archive plays a vital role in this process by providing salvaged elements for copying. Fragments of painted glass rescued from the dust and rubble after blast damage destroyed windows during World War II has enabled their exact reconstruction, providing not just evidence of their appearance but of the original materials and techniques.

The Building Archive also fills gaps in documentary evidence by providing examples of fittings and fixtures, some with rare original painted surfaces. This collection complements the main Soane Archives, which contain Soane’s personal papers, post-Soane Curators’ records, and the many watercolour views and photographs which together provide an almost complete picture of the building and collections through time. A cast of a long-lost Egyptian head testifies to the evidence that we can draw upon to reconstruct lost elements of Soane’s arrangements.


Collection of 29 sash pulleys

Collection of 29 sash pulleys of varying dates, removed from windows at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields since 1990, SM X267
Photo: Helen Dorey

Our large collection of pulleys, many of them original, have been removed in the process of restoring the Museum’s sash windows as they were too worn to continue in use. They have been carefully preserved, each one dated and labelled by Charles Brooking of the Brooking Museum of Architectural Detail. Brooking has advised the Museum on window and door furniture for more than 30 years. He has identified the Soane period examples, sometimes providing identical items for replication from his own collection where our original pulleys were damaged. Each pulley removed has been replaced in the window with a copy of the original. 


An unidentified iron bracket, early 19th century

An unidentified iron bracket, early 19th century, removed during a past restoration project, SM X1412
Photo: John Bridges

This object probably dates from Soane’s lifetime. With its split fixing plate and curved front edge, it presumably held either a heavy object, or some element of the building fabric, in place. Along with other historic fixings, Helen Dorey rescued it from the toolbox in the Museum’s Knife and Boot Room c.2005. The mustard yellow paint indicates that at least the front part of the bracket was visible and that it was used inside the building. The colour might relate to the yellow Drawing Rooms, but its exact original location is unknown. Readers: if you can offer further information about how it might have been used or its date, we would love to hear from you.


A broken Delft tile

A broken Delft tile, salvaged during alterations at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields at an unknown date before 1920, SM X1087
Photo: Lewis Bush

This object is one of 50 Delft tiles discovered in a cardboard box in the China Pantry in the 1990s. The tiles are not listed in the 1837 inventories of Soane’s collection, which may indicate that they were affixed to a wall at that time. The condition of the tiles supports this idea because they have remnants of plaster on their backs. Additionally, many are damaged which indicates that they were somewhat crudely removed from a wall. We know that a second-floor watercloset – dismantled in the late 19th century – was decorated with blue and white tiles and ‘Dutch tile paper’ during Soane’s lifetime. It’s likely that these tiles came from that space.


Three pieces of ‘foliate scroll’ pattern border glass, early 19th century, SM X1616
Photo: John Bridges

Visitors to the Soane Museum will be familiar with the coloured glass used throughout the building. Many of Soane’s windows originally contained 16th and 17th century panels set within modern coloured glass borders. During the late 19th century, James Wild (Curator 1878–92) removed these windows and made new arrangements. Further damage to Soane’s windows was caused by bomb blast during World War II. By the 1980s almost no original glass was left in situ in the Museum.

Fragments of Soane’s original glass, such as these, have provided vital evidence for the recreation of all the stained-glass windows in the Museum over the last thirty years. This ‘foliate scroll’ pattern, painted in enamels onto the glass, was used by Soane at different scales in the Picture Room Recess, North Drawing Room and Bedroom windows.


One end of the Breakfast Room North skylight, replaced in 1990. Timber and glass, SM X1545
Photo: John Bridges

Soane designed his buildings with extensive top-lighting to illuminate his spaces from above. During the last major restoration of the rear roofs (1990–91), the two timber Breakfast Room skylights were found to be rotten and needed to be replaced. Research revealed that these were post-World War II ‘exact replicas’ of the previous skylights, which were apparently Soane’s originals, still in situ in 1945 after more than 100 years. These post-war copies provided exact templates of Soane’s original skylights and were replicated by Julian Harrap Architects.

Several sections of the post-war skylights were saved for the Building Archive because of their close relationship to Soane’s originals. We preserved pieces of dark red late 19th century glass in position, for the record, along with traces of the early UV film used here in the 1980s.


Cast of an Egyptian red granite head, made by the Gipsformerei, Berlin, to replace a lost original from Soane’s collection, 2010, painted plaster, SM X1334
Photo: John Bridges

Charles James Richardson, view of the basement West Corridor looking north, showing the Egyptian head in position, 1834, watercolour on paper, SM Vol. 82/125
©Sir John Soane’s Museum

This replica demonstrates the research and care required to preserve and reinstate Soane’s original arrangements of objects throughout the Museum. Soane owned a plaster cast of a colossal red granite Egyptian head. In the 1890s Soane’s cast was placed outside, and it fell and was destroyed in 1967. Although no photographs show Soane’s cast, watercolours show it as it was displayed in Soane’s time. These images enabled us to identify two others in other collections, including one at the former royal cast-making workshop in Berlin – the Gipsformerei. They made us this new cast, generously sponsored by Ömer Koç and Simon Ray, which was hung in place in August 2010, to complete the reinstatement of Soane’s display in the basement West Corridor.   


A walk through the building archive TOP

Video: A Walk through the building archive

Taking Care: A Walk through the Building Archive

Join Deputy Director and Inspectress Helen Dorey for a virtual tour through the Soane Museum’s rarely-seen building archive, telling the fascinating and moving story of the Soane Museum’s care.

This talk was delivered on 10 June 2021 as part of London Festival of Architecture 2021.

Exhibition Info

01 Jun 2021 to 30 Jun 2021

Online exhibition


Taking Care: A Walk through the Building Archive

Join Deputy Director and Inspectress Helen Dorey for a virtual tour through the Soane Museum’s rarely-seen building archive, telling the fascinating and moving story of the Soane Museum’s care.