Produced as a companion to The Romance of Ruins, this online exhibition explores Sir John Soane's interest in and relationship to the architecture of Ancient Greece. It outlines Soane's activities as a collector, architect and educator.


Curated by Erin McKellar and Frances Sands.

Sir John Soane’s architectural style was heavily influenced by his knowledge of ancient Rome. However, other classical architectural styles, such as that of Ancient Greece, also informed Soane’s approach as a collector, architect and teacher. Although Soane never travelled to Greece to see its monuments in person, he did travel to the Italian peninsula. As a student of architecture, he was awarded a three-year travelling scholarship by the Royal Academy. He departed London on 18 March 1778, travelling to Italy via Paris. It was during this trip that Soane experienced Greek architecture first-hand in Paestum, a major Ancient Greek city located in southern Italy. Although Soane described the Ancient Greeks’ architecture as ‘exceedingly rude’ in his Royal Academy lectures, the objects in this online exhibition attest to the fact that he found it compelling and inspiring.

During the 18th century, the Western world was fascinated by the classical Mediterranean, particularly Ancient Greece and Italy. From the mid-18th century, various publications illustrated new 'discoveries' of Greek art and architecture. Works such as those examined in The Romance of Ruins reflect this fascination with the ancient world and a desire to learn from its art and architecture, challenging the concept of a universal Italianate classicism. There was a growing recognition of other classical sources from other cultures such as Greece and the Near East. This was very much the atmosphere in which Soane was working as a student, and later as an established architect. Soane’s own interest in Ancient Greece is evident in his collections.


James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens…, Volume 1, 1762, SM 3385, title plate
Photo: Erin McKellar

The first volume of The Antiquities of Athens published details of five ancient Greek buildings surveyed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett on an expedition in 1751-54. These were a Doric portico in Athens, the Ionic Temple on the Ilissus, the Tower of the Winds, the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates and the Stoa of Hadrian. With the publication, Stuart sought to establish a specifically Grecian style in Britain. This was a departure from the British architectural norm, as the greatest contemporary architects, William Chambers and Robert Adam, focused primarily on Roman architecture.

Soane purchased this volume in 1818, but his interest in the publication far predates this. A notebook from Soane’s time as a student at the Royal Academy in the 1770s shows that he studied The Antiquities of Athens at the very beginning of his career. He probably accessed a copy belonging to his employer, the architect Henry Holland, as the book was not yet available in the Royal Academy Library.

Some of the drawings included in The Romance of Ruins were engraved for later volumes of The Antiquities of Athens.

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Edward Dodwell, A classical and topographical tour through Greece… 1819, SM 2114, plate showing the Erechtheion, Athens
Photo: Erin McKellar

Edward Dodwell was a pioneering Irish gentleman-artist and archaeologist. He travelled through the Ionian Islands, the Troad (the area around ancient Troy) and mainland Greece in 1801-6, and spent the majority of his later life in Italy. Dodwell shared his archaeological findings in three publications, of which this was the first. It taught readers about the value of the journey – as well as the destination – as a means of exploring the content of a landscape.

Dodwell’s work expanded the growing understanding of Greek culture and trend for Greek architectural inspiration, offering an exhaustive insight into the constituent parts of Greek archaeology. Today his illustrations remain useful to archaeologists, such as this one showing the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis. It is perhaps unsurprising that Soane purchased all of Dodwell’s published works.

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Edward Dodwell, three volumes of drawings made to illustrate Views and descriptions of Cyclopean or Pelasgic Remains in Greece… 1821, SM volume 24/308
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Made as a supplement to the earlier A classical and topographical tour through Greece…, Dodwell’s lavish 1821 publication offered 30 hand-coloured illustrations. Soane’s fascination with Dodwell’s work is highlighted by his substantial acquisition of three large volumes of Dodwell’s original drawings which had been made in preparation for the plates in Views…. The first volume contains finished drawings made for engraving, while the second and third volumes comprise sketches from which the finished drawings were made in 1809-21.

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The Cawdor Vase, late fourth century BC, SM L101
Photos: Klaus Werner

The Cawdor Vase is a large late 4th-century BC krater (mixing vessel) made in Apulia, a Greek colony located in southern Italy. It is ornamented with an explanation of the origins of the Olympic Games, and depicts figures with unsightly faces. First brought to Britain by Baron Cawdor, a Welsh aristocratic art collector, Soane purchased the vase at a sale of Cawdor’s collection on 9 May 1800 for £68.5s. It is one of the more important Greek vases in Britain and a highlight of Soane’s collection.

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By the time Soane began his career, the British were learning that multiple classical styles existed, originating from across the Mediterranean. Grecian architecture was therefore one of several classical styles that were available to Soane and his contemporaries. Rather than dogmatically imitating Greek temples in England, Soane creatively applied the elements of Greek architecture to his own practice. This can be seen in the eclecticism of several projects, in which he applied the 'Greek' in creative ways that are both inventive and distinct.


Joseph Michael Gandy, exhibition drawing showing the Temple of Ceres at Eleusis, c.1814-15, SM P49
Photo: AC Cooper

From the mid-1760s, the Society of Dilletanti sponsored various early voyages to Greece with the intention of producing a series of publications detailing its little-studied architecture. In 1812 they commissioned a further expedition to Ionia and Attica, led by the archaeologist William Gell, accompanied by draughtsmen including John Peter Gandy, the younger brother of Soane’s favourite artist, Joseph Michael Gandy. The group visited a variety of notable sites, including Eleusis, and their findings were published in Unedited Antiquities of Attica in 1817.

Prior to publication, it appears that Joseph Michael Gandy had benefited from the expedition’s findings as this magnificent drawing of the Temple of Ceres at Eleusis was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815, presumably to illustrate a profound grasp of Greek architecture. Gandy’s elegant composition resulted from studying both his brother’s drawings from Greece, and apparently also the Description of Greece by the second-century AD Greek geographer Pausanias. He probably studied the Description of Greece in Soane’s collection, which includes two 18th-century editions.

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The barn à la Paestum, Malvern Hall, Warwickshire. Photograph (2000): [accessed 3 February 2021] (CC)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, study of the Temple of Neptune, Paestum, for Differentes vues de Pesto…, plate xi, c.1777-78, SM P70
Photo: National Gallery

While on a Grand Tour through Europe in 1778-80, Soane visited the imposing Greek temples at Paestum, near Naples. He admired the Temple of Neptune enough to have climbed its columns in order to inspect the mouldings more closely. References to Paestum appear throughout Soane’s later work, but perhaps most clearly in this barn on the Malvern Estate which he designed in 1798. The building is constructed in brick, a typical medium for British vernacular architecture. Squat baseless Doric columns, a Doric frieze of simple triglyphs and metopes, and the rectangular composition with a shallow pedimented gable end all illustrate Soane’s admiration of the Greek architecture at Paestum, particularly the Temple of Neptune. In fact, while none of Soane’s drawings for the barn survive, we know from his journal that he called it ‘a Barn à la Paestum’.

Public admiration, including perhaps Soane’s own, of Paestum’s architecture had been heightened thanks to the 1778 publication of Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s engravings based on his drawings of the city, the majority of which Soane would later purchase.

Find out more about the Piranesi engraving on our collections online database


Office of Sir John Soane, Royal Academy lecture drawing showing an unexecuted doghouse designed in 1799 for Downhill, County Derry, c.1811-20, SM 14/4/2
Photo: Hugh Kelly

This drawing shows a dog-themed kennel design which uses an eclectic mixture of Greek and Roman motifs that Soane had seen during his Grand Tour of 1778-80. These elements include those taken from Roman architecture, such as a frieze that imitates the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Here Soane has substituted dog heads for the ox heads which appear on the original Temple of Vesta. Greek motifs include utilitarian baseless fluted Doric columns, which Soane had observed at the ruins of the Greek colonial city of Paestum in southern Italy.

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Joseph Michael Gandy, presentation drawing giving an interior perspective of the Breakfast Room at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, c.1801-2, SM P95
Photo: Geremy Butler

This drawing records Soane’s interior decoration in the Breakfast Room at his country house, Pitzhanger Manor. One of the principal rooms of the house, Soane placed the Cawdor Vase as its focal point, seen here on the left-hand side. Although the room’s walls were inspired by ancient Roman frescoes from Pompeii, Soane deliberately framed a conspicuously Greek object in the room. Because Soane’s 1800 purchase of the vase predated his 1801 design for the Breakfast Room, it appears that he specifically designed the space around it. After Soane’s sale of Pitzhanger Manor in 1810 the Cawdor vase was removed to 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At the time of Soane’s death in 1837, it enjoyed a similarly prominent position on the window sill of the Library and Dining Room – where it stands today.

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Coade stone caryatids after the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, Athens, 1812, SM E6 and SM E7
Photos: Gareth Gardner

Soane made an unmistakable public gesture of admiration for Greek ornament when he purchased a pair of caryatids from Eleanor Coade for the façade of his house at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Caryatids are sculpted female figures that take the place of columns. One of the caryatids from the Erechtheion, a celebrated temple on the Athenian Acropolis, was among Lord Elgin’s collection (acquired by the British Museum in 1816), and it is probable that Coade used this object as her model. Soane’s caryatids are made from Coade stone – a fired artificial stone whose recipe was perfected by Coade in c.1770 as a hardy medium for fabricating architectural decorations and garden ornaments. Soane was a regular customer of Coade’s and used similar figures in other notable buildings, including the Bank of England. Coade’s caryatids continue to greet every visitor to the Soane Museum.

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It was typical for architects in Soane’s time to reference the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome in their work. Moreover, architects ideally studied classical buildings in the Mediterranean at first hand as an element of their training. Soane devised three ways to share international architectural history at a time when the Napoleonic Wars meant that it was impossible for many students to visit these sites in person. On being appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane wrote 12 lectures on the history of architecture. He illustrated these lectures with around 1,000 large-scale lecture drawings produced by his office. These drawings were often informed by illustrations in publications that Soane owned.

In his house-museum Soane also used casts to instruct his articled pupils, his Royal Academy students and the wider public. Finally, Soane employed architectural models in cork and plaster. By using a combination of casts and models, Soane was able to teach the elements of Greek architecture from the level of ornamental detail to full-sized buildings.


Plaster cast of one volute of an Ionic capital from the portico of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, Athens, M1290
Photo: AC Cooper

James Ward, portrait of Fanny, 1822, SM P189
Photo: Andy Johnson

Although Soane’s collection is famed for its antiquities, it also includes an array of plaster casts (a way of replicating a work of art using a mould made from the original object). These illustrate architectural details from across the classical world. Having collected numerous books, Soane was familiar with the buildings on the Athenian Acropolis, but never visited Greece himself. This cast from the Erechtheion of c.415, BC, would have enabled Soane and his students to observe one of the capitals which topped its columns in greater detail than is possible from a measured drawing. We know that Soane was fond of the Erechtheion because it appears in the background of James Ward’s 1822 portrait of the family’s much-loved Manchester Terrier, Fanny.

Find out more about the plaster cast on our collections online database
Find out more about the portrait of Fanny on our collections online database


Office of Sir John Soane, Royal Academy lecture drawings showing a detail in perspective of the Greek Doric capital and entablature from the Parthenon, and the Ionic capital from the Erechtheion, both on the Acropolis, Athens, c.1806-19, SM 23/3/3 and SM 25/3/2
Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama

Soane’s lecture drawings are thought to comprise the earliest graphic history of world architecture, and they offered his students a glimpse of buildings that they would probably never see. Soane used these drawings showing the Greek Doric and Ionic orders at the Acropolis to illustrate his first RA lecture. Referring to the architecture of the Acropolis and the Temple of Theseus in Athens, Soane said:

These superb monuments […] were, when in a perfect state, a source of glory to the Greeks; and their invaluable remains serve us for models and cannot fail of exciting the most enthusiastic admiration. In these ruins we perceive those elegant forms and beautiful combinations which the most solid and correct judgement and the most refined taste could produce.

Find out more about the Doric capital on our collections online database
Find out more about the Ionic capital on our collections online database


Office of Sir John Soane, Royal Academy lecture drawing showing the Colossus at Rhodes, c.1806-19, SM 76/9/2
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

This lecture drawing visualises the Colossus at Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Mentioned in Soane’s tenth RA lecture, the Colossus was a statue of the Greek sun-god Helios. It stood at around 33 metres and was the tallest known in antiquity. Erected in 280 BC to celebrate the end of a year-long siege, it collapsed during an earthquake in 226 BC. Small parts survive, but the exact location and form of the Colossus are unknown. Despite this, it was a renowned feature of Greek art by Soane’s day. This image, a fantasy view, duplicates an illustration from the Austrian architect and historian Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s 1725 book, Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur.

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Attributed to Domenico Padiglione, cork model of the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, c.1820, SM MR25
Photo: Hugh Kelly

Soane acquired this model in 1826 and eight years later, in 1834, he included it when he assembled the famous Model Room in his late wife’s bedroom. The model maker Padiglione was a master in using the naturally weathered surface of cork to evoke the crumbling stones of ancient ruins. This example depicts the Temple of Neptune after its excavation which cleared the interior of rubble.

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François Fouquet, plaster model of a monument at Mylasa, c.1800-34, SM MR15
Photo: Robin Forster

Contrasting with Soane’s cork models, there are twenty small-scale plaster models by Fouquet. While the cork models show classical buildings in ruin, these finely detailed plaster models depict antique buildings as they might have looked when new. This example illustrates a first-century AD tomb at Myslasa in south-west Turkey (now Milas). Such models were central to Soane’s teaching activities as few of his contemporaries would ever have the opportunity to travel as far as Turkey. The monument at Mylasa was one of the buildings depicted by William Pars in 1764, and features in The Romance of Ruins exhibition.

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The Romance of Ruins The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764

Discover a series of powerful and poetic watercolours made on an expedition to discover the ruins of ancient Ionia (modern Turkey) in 1764.

The Lure of Ruins: Susan Stewart in conversation with Bruce Boucher

Join Susan Stewart of Princeton University and Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum to explore the enduring appeal of ruins in Western thought in this free online talk.