Gen­tle­man’s rel­ish

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.’’

Check­list

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.

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