The hunt for the origin of eighteenth-century Romanticism, Kenneth Clark wrote, is “a favourite sport among art historians.” Is it the dark and stormy night in June 1764 when Horace Walpole dreams that he is in the hall of an ancient castle, sees a giant armored hand on the topmost banister of the staircase, then wakes up and starts writing The Castle of Otranto? Or is it the months between the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and the publication of Burke’s inquiry into the fearful Origins of the Sublime in 1756?
Clark proposed Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, mostly designed in 1745, and first published in 1750. The Imaginary Prisons, Clark wrote, are “an extraordinary prelude” to the Romantic “imagery of fear.” There is, however, an earlier image of Romantic fear and reason run amok. In October 1720, Alexander Pope obtained a license to dig a tunnel under the road that separated his house and garden at Twickenham, west of London; the site of Pope’s villa, demolished in 1808, is now only ten minutes’ walk from Walpole’s restored Strawberry Hill. Extracting, as Dr. Johnson put it, “an ornament from an inconvenience,” Pope expanded the central section of the tunnel into a grotto, a “luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture . . . it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms . . . at which when a Lamp . . . is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.”
In 1739, Pope visited the Hotwell Spa, near the Avon Gorge. He became so interested in geology and mining that he redecorated his grotto entirely, plastering the walls with ores, crystals, spars, marbles, diamonds, and ammonites. Just as Piranesi revised his Prisons for the 1760 edition, intensifying the power and horror of his theme as if to keep up with reality and the Lisbon Earthquake, so Pope modified glittering trickery with scientific samples. Over a decade before Lisbon, in Goethe’s words, unleashed “the Demon of Fear,” in Pope’s second design Nature erupts through the Classical conceit of the grotto, the tomb of unreason.
More than a century before Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols,” the fossils buried in the cabinets of natural philosophy came back to life beneath Pope’s lawn, to crawl into mute and natural order. This double image, of Nature as self-organizing, and Man as the reader of the catalogue of organic forms, is as much a Modern nightmare as Romantic one. Apart from suggesting the dialectical intimacy of Classic and Romantic, this raises another art-historical hue and cry: the hunt for the nineteenth-century origins of the Modern. Around 1850, Baudelaire was the first to use modernité in the sense of a unique aesthetic sensibility. But again, a hint of the image appears earlier, and again among the mirrors and ammonites of an architectural fantasy in London.
Soane’s work at the Bank reflects the power and austerity of Pitt’s Britain.
Sir John Soane (1753–1837) was the son of a Berkshire bricklayer. He acquired his early training as an architect on the job, in the offices of George Dance the Younger and Henry Holland, and in the library of the Royal Academy Schools. In 1778, a scholarship from the Royal Academy sent Soane on a revelatory tour of Italy. Apart from studying ancient ruins and the excavations at Pompeii, Soane met contemporary architects and collectors, including Piranesi. Soane also saw two ways of organizing ancient debris. In the rococo Palazzo Biscari at Calabria, Ignazio V Biscari tumbled epochs and styles together, and refracted the confusion and light with mirrors. At Villa Albani in Rome, J. J. Winckelmann had arranged Cardinal Albani’s collection of Greco-Roman marbles into a clear narrative, framed in Carlo Marchionni’s coolly Neoclassical setting.
Soane returned to London in 1780 and opened his own practice. He soon secured a reputation for combining the stripped Neoclassicism of his mentors Dance and Holland with a talent for detail, and for staying within his budgets. In 1784, he married Elizabeth Smith, the daughter of the City builder George Wyatt, with whom he had worked in Dance’s office. By 1788, Soane was a father of two sons with a house in fashionable Welbeck Street. He had commissions at the twin peaks of aesthetic and social status: a picture gallery and a bed modeled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates for William Beckford, and remodeling Holwood, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger’s villa in Kent. Pitt’s support had also secured Soane a prestigious sinecure, architect to the Bank of England.
Over the next forty-five years, Soane rebuilt most of the Bank complex. Fascinated by dramatic domed spaces lit from above, and by the layout of ancient palaces and baths, he devised a sequence of large domed banking halls for a temple of modern finance. If the classicism of the Napoleonic era is swollen with imperial pretension, then Soane’s work at the Bank reflects the power and austerity of Pitt’s Britain, where the national debt financed the anti-Napoleonic coalition. Soane’s Bank Stock House (1792–95) and Rotunda (1794–95) were revolutionary in their simplicity. The Rotunda was a stripped Pantheon, without columns or fussy mouldings. High above, the caryatids supporting the lantern are like monitory angels. The Stock House was the barest of bathhouses, its clean lines emphasized with simple incised mouldings, its lantern resting on a new technology, thin cast-iron ribs.
In 1800, Soane bought and redeveloped Pitzhanger, a manor at Ealing, west of London. He planned it as the seat of an architectural dynasty to rival the Adams, the Wyatts, and his enemies the Smirkes, and stocked it with a collection worthy of a gentleman architect. But neither of his sons became a gentleman or an architect. The eldest, John, was an idler who dropped out from Cambridge with health problems, then evaded an apprenticeship with Soane’s protégé Joseph Gandy. His younger brother George was worse. He wanted to write for the stage, but spent his time and money in fast company.
In 1810, Soane sold Pitzhanger and moved his collection into No. 12, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He had already bought the freehold to the three-bay house at No. 13. Now, he gutted it and rebuilt it as an “Academy” and museum. This was an alternative posterity to the dynastic Elysium at Pitzhanger—and also a rival stage for Soane’s pedagogy.
In his 1810 lectures as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Soane had denounced several recent buildings, including his mentor George Dance’s Royal College of Surgeons and his rival Robert Smirke’s Covent Garden Theatre. Smirke and his father organized their supporters, and passed a motion before the Academy Council, forbidding lecturers from criticizing living artists. Soane suspended his lectures, and entered a three-year crisis in relations with the Academy.
Soane had seen “his fairest prospects utterly destroyed.”
The sculptor J. C. Rossi describes Soane’s behavior at an 1811 meeting of the Academy Council as “that of an insane man.” Ostracized, paranoid, and furious, Soane had seen “his fairest prospects utterly destroyed.” His once “lively character” became “sombre—melancholy, brooding constantly over an accumulation of evils.” Even the redevelopment of No. 13 turned into a legal battle. When Soane attached a three-bay, two-story loggia in Portland stone to the front of the house, the District Surveyor refused to believe that it was a balcony. Not unreasonably, Soane was accused of transgressing the property line.
The failings that Soane imputed to contemporary architecture were also those he imputed to his sons: an “utter want of appropriate character,” and the masking of mean interiors with grandiose façades. Nor had his sons finished their revenge. In 1811, both sons contracted unsuitable marriages. “I have married Agnes,” George notified his mother, “to spite you and father.” In 1814, George was imprisoned for debt and fraud. His mother paid off his creditors and the man he had defrauded. George returned the favor by anonymously denouncing his father in an article titled “The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more particularly of Architecture.”
“Those are George’s doings,” Eliza Soane wrote in October 1815. “He has given me my death blow.” Six weeks later, she was dead.
The fall of the house of Soane turned No. 13 from a museum and a school into a mausoleum and a jail, and not just because Soane’s students, entering through a rear door, passed under pedimented aedicules reminiscent of George Dance the Younger’s design for Newgate Prison. Soane had not lost his architectural touch so much as his emotional balance.
The house is bisected in two ways: vertically by light, which Soane contrived to carry down to the basement by domes, wells, and mirrors; and horizontally by use. The front rooms, overlooking the trees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, are the spacious public home of a merely eccentric connoisseur. The rear rooms, created as Soane expanded No. 13 into its back yard and the coaching stables to its rear, are a Piranesi nightmare. As with a Piranesi interior, Soane’s prison is best viewed from the dank basement. Open-sided cells are exposed to view. Broken strands of light pass through cutaway floors. An airborne network of passages zigzags overhead. “Every time our eye undertakes a journey,” Clark wrote of Piranesi, “it is sent back, sharply and painfully.”
Soane sends the eye back gently, but with mounting confusion. Piranesi’s spaces intimidate by enormity; Soane’s are oppressively tight. The gangways are narrow and convoluted, the walls rough with stone; not the unfinished surface of Pope’s tunnel, but hundreds of chunks of architectural marble, because Soane wanted his students to experience the Grand Tour in a London townhouse. As in Piranesi’s 1760 edition, vision is intensified and disoriented. You cannot know which floor you are on or which room you are in. You drift without noticing from No. 13 to No. 12 and No. 14, which Soane bought to balance the stone loggia. The objects are too numerous and too close to your eyes. You can neither examine one of them nor escape from all of them. You are Soane’s prisoner. “How much more appalling,” Clark wrote, “when, in 1760, every square inch is made horribly factual, so that one cannot avoid climbing up those spiral staircases and hurrying dizzily along those terrible gangways.”
You cannot know which floor you are on or which room you are in.
Soane built his own ruin, to teach not just architecture but also the moral that time devours flesh and stone alike. In the basement, the sarcophagus of Seti I sits in the Egyptian Crypt like a foundation stone; the image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead pharaoh’s soul and quite possibly the deity of Soane’s last years, is incised on the floor of the coffin. Above, the Sepulchral Chamber looms encrusted with busts, vases, relics, and architectural debris.
Around the corner is a Gothic cell, The Monk’s Parlour, where Soane took afternoon tea with his guests, bathed in what he called lumière mystérieuse, a weird impersonation of Mediterranean sunlight obtained by painting the skylights yellow. In the Description of the Residence of John Soane, one of the several guidebooks that he wrote for his victims, Soane calls the Monk’s Parlour the “Parloir of Padre Giovanni,” a priest who is buried in the courtyard outside, along with his faithful dog. Padre Giovanni is Soane himself, buried alive in his possessions and grief. The dog is Fanny, Eliza Soane’s terrier, who is entombed in the Court of the Monk’s Grave under a tower of architectural salvage.
The goddess Nut smiled on Soane when he constructed his Picture Room. Entering from a marble-choked corridor, you see a trio of Canalettos over a fireplace with a Gothic scrolled surround, the four oil panels of Hogarth’s An Election, and a set of Piranesi temples. Then the room turns inside out. To display more of his collection, Soane hung “movable planes” from the walls, with “sufficient space between for pictures.” A second gallery is on the inside of the planes. As the southern wall swings out, it reveals an abyss. The eye tumbles into the morbid grotto, the Monk’s Parlour.
The hidden pictures include the eight oils of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress and Architectural Ruins: A Vision (1798) by Soane’s pupil Joseph Gandy. The vision is of Soane’s Rotunda at the Bank of England as a picturesque ruin. The composition, with its view from the ground up through the smashed dome, echoes Piranesi’s Ruins of the Temple of the God Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. Soane’s prophecy was fulfilled. The Bank was destroyed and rebuilt between 1925 and 1939. In a photograph from the demolition phase, men with hammers stand on the lip of the smashed dome of the Bank’s Colonial Office. The photographer, Frank Yerbury, stands amid the rubble, like Piranesi and Gandy. We are inside the future, inside Soane’s vision of his ultimate nullification.
He quite enjoyed contemplating it. He wrote his first guidebook to No. 13, Crude Hints towards an History of my House, when the house was a shell without a staircase. Spoofing the connoisseur, Soane wonders if the building used to be “a Heathen Temple to Vesta or to some other divinity—or the palace of an Enchanter—or a Convent for Nuns,” before concluding that it is “merely . . . a dwelling, & that of an Artist, either an Architect or painter.”
It is more than that, and more than the folly of a cracked collector, or the extraction of an ornament from an inconvenience. Look around in the rear rooms of the house, and you see fearful Romantic disorder, the demented confusion of ruins. As Clark wrote of Piranesi, “There is never a smooth transition—that essence of classicism—between the two points.” Look around the front rooms, and you see strange irruptions from curved mirrors. But if you look beyond the confusion, and especially if you look upwards in the front rooms, the house looks oddly modern.
Soane is more modern than he looks, especially if we know where to look.
Soane was a master of the clean line. There is not one cornice in the whole house, only a spherical bead moulding. He rebuilt the gutted interior of No. 13 with an ingenious sparseness not seen until the early twentieth century, a distillation of Neoclassicism. The lighting also feels modern; the coaxing of natural light into the lower recesses of the house, the waxy, artificial lumière mystérieuse.
The Gothic architects of the Victorian era loathed Soane’s “pagan” architecture. There were several attempts to close the Museum, notably by Soane’s awful son George and grandson Frederick, who challenged Soane’s will in the courts. Their suit became lodged, as Dickens would say, “In Chancery,” and was only defeated in 1873, when the Court of Chancery was dissolved. Meanwhile, the Soane Museum became notoriously empty and irrelevant—perfect, as Henry James realized when writing A London Life (1888), for an illicit assignation.
Soane’s Museum slept for a hundred years, with occasional disturbances from meddlesome curators and the Blitz. As late as 1984, when the revival of the museum and its finances began under Peter Thornton, the museum office contained a staff of three, a manual typewriter, and a single telephone. After Thornton’s retirement in 1995, Margaret Richardson continued the restoration, introduced a program of temporary exhibitions, and bought back No. 14. Between 2005 and 2013, her successor Tim Knox oversaw a major campaign of repair and expansion. The completed program, largely funded by Soane’s Museum Foundation of New York and a National Lottery grant, has left the Museum larger than it was when it opened in 1837.
Soane is more modern than he looks, especially if we know where to look. Although his built legacy suffered in the decades of unpopularity, his influence can be seen all over London. The flattened dome and incised linear mouldings of the family tomb in which Soane interred his beloved wife Eliza and his useless son John inspired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s prize-winning design for the K2 telephone box (1926). Scott, a Gothic Modernist, was a Life Trustee of the Soane Museum’s distortion of time and space. Today, children all over the world watch Dr. Who, the intergalactic television detective, steeping into a blue K2, a portal to other worlds.