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Soane actually and virtually

See the digital re-creation of Soane’s vanished Bank of England, then go to the Soane Museum to experience the results of its long and painstaking restoration

View towards the Apollo recess and dome area from the Sepulchral Chamber.
View towards the Apollo recess and dome area from the Sepulchral Chamber. Credit: Gareth Gardner

Slowly, over many years, Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been put back to rights under a succession of directors. It might always have seemed intact and perfect in all its obsessive detail, but not so. Various piecemeal alterations and periods of neglect over a century and a half had taken it slightly but significantly away from the state in which Sir John left his house to the nation in 1837, having wisely first negotiated an Act of Parliament to preserve it and its contents in perpetuity. And now, finally – it’s finished.

This has not been just a matter of restoration but of making the museum properly step-free accessible, with enough space to handle ever-increasing numbers of visitors, school parties and the like, provide temporary exhibition areas and so forth. Space has been found in the houses alongside, the rooms upstairs and downstairs. Starting way back with basic repairs, this stop-go programme at one time seemed never-ending but accelerated in 2011 with the launch of a big final push, the £7 million, seven-year ‘Opening Up the Soane’ project, or OUTS.

Several directors, yes, but for 30 years just one deputy director, Helen Dorey, who has been the academic driving force behind the restoration and discreet expansion. And just one architect, historic buildings specialist Julian Harrap Architects. Apart from all the usual and unusual conservation moves, Harrap had the distinctly tricky task of putting in two lifts and, most recently, building a new curving link passage across a corner of a courtyard to make the place finally fully accessible.

  • The dresser in the Soane Museum's front kitchen.
    The dresser in the Soane Museum's front kitchen.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • Objects in the  basement of the Ante Room.
    Objects in the basement of the Ante Room.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • Re-created consoles and bust in the lobby to the Breakfast Room.
    Re-created consoles and bust in the lobby to the Breakfast Room.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • The Catacombs.
    The Catacombs.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • The dome area and Apollo recess with newly reinstated wall behind the Apollo statue.
    The dome area and Apollo recess with newly reinstated wall behind the Apollo statue.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • The dome area and Apollo recess.
    The dome area and Apollo recess.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • The lobby to the Breakfast Room.
    The lobby to the Breakfast Room.Credit: Gareth Gardner
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As with Tim Ronalds' wonderful award-winning Wilton’s Music Hall project, here too Harrap has a way of making things appear as if nothing has happened. On my tour Dorey pointed out small but significant areas of restoration and rediscovery of previously ‘lost spaces’: the lobby to the Breakfast Room, Ante Room and Catacombs. I probably wouldn’t have noticed had they not been pointed out, since they all open off familiar interconnecting spaces. The collection has been put back as much as possible as it was in Soane’s day, with 10% of the collection restored and redisplayed for the first time since 1837.

There is a new temporary exhibition space just behind the famous statue of Apollo, whose setting had been compromised since the late 19th century by the removal of a mirrored bookcase behind him. Harrap has made double doors based on the missing bookcase (others survive to act as a template) and the extra reflectivity means that Apollo now has his full golden glow, carefully directed by Soane from strategically placed yellow-glass skylights.

And finally, you can now go down into the servants’ realm of the basement and view the stone-floored kitchens, wander along a corridor and look out into the mossy courtyard with the tomb to Mrs Soane’s dog. ‘Alas, Poor Fanny’ reads the inscription.

  • The original Georgian range in the Soane Museum's back kitchen.
    The original Georgian range in the Soane Museum's back kitchen.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • View looking along the colonnade towards the dome area and the Apollo recess.
    View looking along the colonnade towards the dome area and the Apollo recess.Credit: Gareth Gardner
  • The west corridor in the basement of the Soane Museum.
    The west corridor in the basement of the Soane Museum.Credit: Gareth Gardner
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Meanwhile, another kind of restoration has been taking place: the virtual re-creation of Soane’s original Bank of England building.

One of the great acts of vandalism in architectural history was when Sir Herbert Baker demolished nearly all but the screen wall of Sir John Soane’s Georgian Bank of England building in the inter-war years and crashed an imperially grandiose and much taller new Bank into the shell. But what did Soane’s building look like, pre-Baker?

We see it in old photos, of course – including some tear-jerking ones of it being gutted – and Soane himself made sure that it was well illustrated in views by his favoured draughtsman JM Gandy. Including, prophetically, the famous one of it as a ruin. But what if we were to reconstruct it digitally, inside and out, in virtual form? 

Delightfully, this has been done, by a number of architects around the world, in ‘Project Soane’, masterminded by architect Graham Wyatt of Robert AM Stern Architects (RAMSA) in New York, and done in collaboration with Hewlett Packard. It had, crucially, the assistance of the Soane Museum which opened up its archives to those taking part.

The project was done in the form of a competition. See the results here. And then, if you can, go to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and see the actual work of the master.