Soane by candlelight

Issue section: 

John Soane was an architect who came to prominence in the late Georgian era. During a career that straddled one of the greatest periods of social unrest in British history, Soane was responsible for a number of iconic neoclassical designs - most notably the Bank of England.

Among them was his house at Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he not only lived and worked, but assembled an incredible collection of antiquities.
The house and its collection were bequeathed to the public in 1833 as Sir John Soane's Museum. On the first Tuesday evening of every month the curators illuminate the collection by candlelight.

Entering the house you enter the mind of the architect. People have characterised the museum as a hybrid of a historical exhibition and a "curiosity box" - the museum is like a display case filled with often incongruous and disturbing oddities and found objects.

Soane wanted to be seen as a teacher as well as a practising architect, and his house at Lincoln's Inn Fields was his way of bringing the theoretical and practical aspects of his work together in a way that would help him develop the ideas of his students. The space is crammed with artefacts - but they're placed with purpose.

While Soane still occupied the house, aspiring architects were invited to tour the collection. The space and the artefacts it holds were used as a means to teach students an appreciation of form. It's a fascinating achievement - but I think it also says something about an imperialist world-view.

Soane is trying to convey the fundamentals of architectural practice, but at the same time to confirm what he believes are universal aesthetic themes and values. Chinese vases are placed with their Greek counterparts so we can appreciate the contrasting and uniting features of their form - and that's wonderful in and of itself.

But behind that lie acts of violence. These objects have been torn from the cultures to which they belong. Bronze gods cavort with ceramic lions, but we have no way to understand their significance or value to the people who created them. Looking at the exhibition can feel like looking at the world through the dead gaze of the British Empire.

The son of a bricklayer, chance and patronage lifted Soane into the ranks of the bourgeoisie while it still carried a memory of itself as a revolutionary class, but at a time when the proletarian masses were primed to snatch the stage of history out from under it.

By the end of Soane's career the Napoleonic Wars were not much more than a decade past, and the rise of the working class Chartist movement only a few years away. The Soane House doesn't obviously reflect this tumult; the explicit politics of the era are captured only in glances - selected busts of celebrated figures, or pieces chosen to symbolise important events.

For a Soane scholar or a more avid student of the period, these may present a fascinating insight into the architect's relationship with his own time. For the rest of us, the collection appears as the centre of an incredible confluence of history and culture, the brilliant detritus of empire through an intimate acquaintance with a formidable mind.

John Soane museum, London, free entry