From Page 1 to a group that included socialites and rock stars. The British press got carried away with the potential for lewd, clubby antics and reported, quite incorrectly, that the waiters were Chippendales-style ‘‘ butlers in the buff’’ who wore nothing but aprons. Champagneaddled guests, according to the scandal-mongering Tatler , asked if the young men ‘‘ were available for taking home’’.
‘‘ Oh, behave!’’ the magazine added with glee. AMID the throngs of statues, many people miss the 1829 marble bust of Soane on the first floor, posing as an ancient Roman hero. It comes as little surprise to learn the master of this house was a colourful, contradictory character. The son of a bricklayer, he was plucked from humble origins thanks to his skill at sketching and won a scholarship to tour Italy, allowing him to visit the new excavations at Pompeii and develop his passion for Greco-Roman art.
When he died at the ripe age of 84, Soane was one of the most distinguished individuals in Britain, and one imagines his existence like those of his sculpted Greek gods, ‘‘ exempt from the common evils of life’’, as Mrs Hofland wrote at the Sarcophagus Party, but ‘‘ awake to all its generous sensibilities’’.
This happy impression seems to be confirmed when one wanders into the Breakfast Room, which sports a fine drawing of the family in 1798, with Soane nibbling toast and tea with his wife, two young sons scampering on the carpet, apparently immune to the vagaries of fate. But, of course, Soane was not above mortal concerns. His fondest ambition had been to found a dynasty of architects through his sons, but John Jr was struck down in his 20s by consumption and George grew up to be a rake who seems straight out of Hogarth’s paintings, running up huge debts and in 1815 writing an anonymous attack in a newspaper on his father’s architecture that drove his ill mother to the grave.
Soane Sr couldn’t have been an easy father. ‘‘ He could be a man of great charm,’’ says the museum archivist Sarah Palmer. ‘‘ But he was also very driven, very touchy and moody, with a real chip on his shoulder about his poor origins.’’
Realising that his son George would sell off his collection when he died, Soane devised the master plan to preserve his house as a museum. Not only did he make provision in his will, he had the house’s status confirmed by an 1833 act of parliament, ensuring that it would remain forever a venue for ‘‘ amateurs and students in painting, sculpture and architecture’’. The bequest ensured that Soane’s house survived while most other private collections of the time were cannibalised by larger institutions.
One of the warders, noticing me staring at the portrait of Soane’s sons, has a philosophical take on his domestic tragedies. ‘‘ Thank goodness Mr Soane didn’t get on with young George,’’ he laughs. ‘‘ I’d be out of a job.’’
Shuffling downstairs to the sepulchral darkness, visitors can only give thanks for such melancholy accidents. The best response is to retire to the 17thcentury pub nearby, The Ship Tavern, which is aglow with soft light and bursting with ale-fuelled cheer.
I feel a little like the diarist Benjamin Robert Haydon, who was also at Soane’s great Sarcophagus Party:
‘‘ It was the finest fun imaginable to see the people come into the library after wandering about below, amidst tombs and capitals and shafts and noseless heads, with a sort of expression of delighted relief at finding themselves again among the living, and with coffee and cake.’’
Sir John Soane’s Museum is at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, not far from Holborn Tube station; open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am-5pm. More: www.soane.org.