Sir John Soane: Master Hoarder

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The ‘supreme example of the house-museum in the world’

Born in Berkshire, 1753, (Sir) John Soane, following in the footsteps of his bricklayer father, took his passion for buildings to the next level when he became a pupil of the architect George Dance at the mere age of fifteen. After studying the subject at the Royal Academy in London, Soane spent some time in Italy before returning to England where he later secured the position of Architect and Surveyor to the bank of England in 1788. Eventually he became a Professor of Architecture at the same academy he attended as a student.

Soane’s passion was not only significant for his career, but influenced and shaped his entire life. His marriage to Eliza Smith prompted him to purchase and remodel No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields – supposably taking advantage of his wife being a heiress – as a home for his family of two sons. This was in 1792, however sixteen years later he began rebuilding the house next-door – No. 13 – as an extension to his original home. Eventually, No. 14 was added to his personalised home meaning that he was able to rent out parts as a way of earning extra income, as well as opening a museum and creating a particularly inventive picture gallery.

By the time Soane had finished renovating No. 12, 13 and 14, the structure resembled a maze more than a house. From the outside, the buildings innocently stand there refusing to provide the merest suggestion of the labyrinth found inside, however stepping through the front door takes you to a new dimension. With unexpected doors, corridors and mysterious rooms, it is easy to get yourself lost and turned around several times throughout your visit. If you were to release a cat into the building (don’t do it), there is a high chance you will never see it again!

Although Soane’s architecture is an impressive feat, it is not the main attraction. On his death in 1837, Soane’s house was left to the nation, which he had bequeathed as a museum for the public on the condition that it remain “as nearly as possible in the state in which he would leave it.” So, what is it about the house that makes it museum-worthy? The contents, of course.

Sir John Soane may have been one of England’s greatest architects, however was also a great collector of art, sculpture and painting. He used his home primarily as a laboratory for his architectural ideas, but also used his intriguing collections for teaching purposes. Students were left to wander through rooms to study and draw the accumulation of objects on shelves, walls, floors, and wherever else he managed to squeeze something in.

Some of the rooms were obviously decorated with the intention of being lived in, for instance the dining room, drawing room, study and dressing room. Despite this, their contents are still noteworthy objects. The furniture Soane purchased were not simple, function-based items, but expensive, meaningful amenities. Many were made specially for Soane, however there are chairs imported from China amongst the Classical vases, astronomical clock, oil lamps and frescos.

Those items, however, are a few of the more “normal” pieces in Soane’s collection. Head downstairs to the former wine cellars and you find yourself transported to ancient Rome in a basement titled the Crypt, reminiscent of the burial tombs or catacombs of bygone eras. The rather eerie, morbid atmosphere is summoned up by the cinerary urns, replicas of classical statues, gothic ornaments, plaster casts of grotesque heads, and, most importantly, the sarcophagus of an Egyptian king.

King Seti (1303-1290 BC) was interred in a sarcophagus carved from a single piece of calcite limestone and scored with hieroglyphics, telling the Egyptian story of the soul’s journey to the afterlife. What possessed Soane to make such a purchase is unknown, but in 1824 it was placed in his Sepulchral Chamber and has remained there ever since.

The basements, whilst containing the most fascinating items, is not necessarily the best room of the house. Some visitors may prefer the staircase and recess dedicated to William Shakespeare, complete with stain glass windows and paintings based on his plays, as well as a shrine featuring a cast of the original bust from the parish church of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Yet, without a doubt, the most impressive room is The Picture Room located upstairs.

Despite being a relatively small area, in comparison to most galleries, Soane managed to fit 118 paintings into his Picture Room. How? At a glance, it looks like an ordinary room (that happens to have a few famous paintings in it), however on closer inspection it is revealed that the walls are, in fact, hinged screens, that when opened, reveal even more artworks. The paintings cover the walls – real and fake – from floor to ceiling, using all space available. And, these works are as grand as the room itself.

Amongst Soane’s collection of paintings are a number of notable names: Canaletto, Turner, Fuseli; as well as architectural drawings designed by Soane himself. But, the most important pictures – the reason some people may visit the museum – are the eight paintings by William Hogarth that make up The Rake’s Progress. These are the originals, painted during the 1700s, and kept protected behind one of the wall screens.

Due to Soane’s instructions, the house has remained as close to the way it was left at the time of his death. Apart from restoration works to make the environment more suitable for visitors, the general contents of the building has been carefully preserved. Unfortunately, this means that the Museum’s owners have been unable to attach labels or information panels, as this would disturb the atmosphere and charm that Soane intended the public to experience. A short guide book is available for purchase at the entrance to help you find your way around the labyrinth of rooms, and provide a few paragraphs about the main attractions.

It is a shame that the museum only reveals a limited amount of information about Sir John Soane, his architecture and bizarre collection of oddities. One can assume that he was a rather unconventional man prone to whimsical ventures, yet why he chose to collect and display such items is anyone’s guess. But, we do not need to know the man to enjoy a tour around the surreal establishment. You will never see another house like it!

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Colourful Blessings

Colourful messages to bless a heart, soothe the soul and calm the mind.

Colouring books appear to be on the way out, but colouring products appear here to stay. Shops around the UK, whether art focused or not, are stocking colouring themed items. Recently I have seen calendars, greeting cards, mugs, table cloths and duvet covers that require you to add colour.

One such retailer is Christian Art Gifts, who provide numerous colouring products such as books, bibles, journals and cards. From a friend, I received a box of 44 cards produced by Christian Art Gifts. Titled Colourful Blessings the box contains over three dozen (business-size) cards with detailed, floral illustrations and bible versus to colour in.

Designed by an unnamed artist, the beautiful images look great when coloured in with bright, cheerful colours, which emphasise the positivity of their messages. The intricate details require thin pencil tips to avoid going over the lines, however the thickness of the card is also suitable for finely tipped pens – potentially easier than constantly sharpening your pencils!

These cards are perfect for giving away to individuals, friends, family, those in need of care or encouragement etc. Being only 4 1/4″x 3 1/4″the cards are easy to slip into pockets, purses, handbags etc, however can also be stuck on fridges and walls as constant reminders of God’s love, peace and joy.

Most of my cards I have donated to my church to be sent out to people we pray for, others I will give to friends who need a reminder that they are loved and cared for. Although most contain a bible verse, there are a few that are less obviously religious, so you can send them to the agnostics and atheists, too!

Make sure you look at the rest of the colouring range at Christian Art Gifts. It is amazing how many ways to colour in there are!

The Courtauld: A History of Art

Located in Somerset House, The Courtauld Institute of Art is amongst the most prestigious galleries in the world. Not only does it exhibit hundreds of well known paintings and artists, the gallery provides a visual timeline of the history of art, at least in Europe. Spanning from medieval art to paintings of the 20th century, The Courtauld reveals the gradually changing styles and techniques that influenced the old masters, and led to the contemporary artworks we create today.

Unless visiting with the intention of viewing a specific artwork, it makes sense to conduct your tour of the gallery in chronological order. Beginning on the ground floor, you can study and contemplate a collection of Medieval art and sculpture alongside a handful of paintings from the Renaissance era (13th-15th Century). Although spanning over two decades and being produced by different artists, many of the artworks look alike, not only in style, but content as well.

It does not take a genius to notice that everything  displayed in Room 1 is of a religious (Christian) nature – the birth and death of Jesus Christ being the most predominant. This reveals a lot about the culture in Europe at that time, an era when religion was at the zenith of most people’s lives. As the information provided alongside the artworks explains, artists were often commissioned by the Church in order to deck out the building with religious effigies – either biblical, or depictions of saints.

Up the stairs, to the first floor, leads you to recognisable works from the 16th-19th centuries. Continuing with the Renaissance era, large paintings dominate the walls, again, mostly of religious scenes. This theme continues through to the 17th century with artists such as Rubens and the beginning of the Baroque era. However, it is from this point onwards that the artists’ choice of subject matter takes a dramatic change.

The 18th century brought about a shift in thinking in what is now referred to as the Enlightenment years. Scientific development of the past century was causing many to distance themselves from religion as they discovered the workings of the world for themselves, and worship inventors who were opening people’s minds to a future unlike any experienced before. As a result, presumably demand for biblical artwork dried up, causing artists to find other ways of attracting clientele.

Not only was the subject matter of art changing, but new methods of painting were being experimented with. The 19th century saw the beginning, middle and end of Impressionism, an art movement characterised by the usage of small, but visible, brushstrokes. Artists involved with this development, and exhibited at The Courtauld, include Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and, of course, Vincent van Gogh.

The top floor of the institute brings you into the 20th century, the years in which a significant number of changes occurred in the art world. What you will notice are the contrasting techniques, choices of colour and differences in theme and imagery, particularly compared with everything you have viewed on the lower floors. Throughout Europe, artists were appropriating methods from their contemporaries and tutors while they sought their own, personal style. This is particularly noticeable when juxtaposing French paintings with German Expressionism, as well as a few British artists.

The experience The Courtauld provides differs significantly from the larger galleries in London – establishments where it is impossible to view everything in one visit. Rather than being a place to see a couple of well known paintings – although that is entirely possible should that be your intention –  the gallery takes you on a journey: a trip through the history of art. Whether or not you decide to pay close attention to individual artworks, scanning the framed paintings on the wall gives you an instant sense of the dramatic changes the art world has encompassed throughout the last 700 or so years.

The Courtauld Institute of Art is worth the entrance fee to bare witness to the great artists of the past centuries, in what is a relatively peaceful environment. Whatever your expectations, it will be hard to be disappointed in your visit; the inclusion of a variety of art movements guarantees an interest for each individual. And, whilst the paintings are the main reason you are there, do not forget to look up and be impressed by the beautiful, awe-inspiring ceilings!

Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.