Colin Gleadell explains why Sir John Soanes was one of the great collectors of all time
Soane is one of Britain’s pre-eminent neo-classical architects, and is best known for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. He was also an omnivorous and eclectic collector. When he died in 1837, having bequeathed his house and collection to the nation by Act of Parliament because he did not trust his offspring, he left more than 30,000 works ranging from Egyptian, Roman and medieval antiquities, to Italian Renaissance and Baroque drawings, an unparalleled collection of architectural drawings, stained glass, sculpture casts, Chinese tiles, architectural models, and paintings by Hogarth and Canaletto.
Works are hung floor to ceiling along the small, narrow passages and through the labyrinth of interiors, with less regard for chronology than for formal juxtapositions and effect. As such, it stands out very much as a private collector’s museum, one that Disraeli described as “permanently magical”. Only 20 people are allowed in at any one time, yet nearly 100,000 visits are made annually.
Soane acquired much of his collection at auction; his first tranche of antiquities was from the Earl of Bessborough’s collection, bought at Christie’s in 1801. But he also supported contemporary British art during the 1820s, perhaps to rival the Angerstein collection of mainly European old masters that was to form the basis of the National Gallery. The list of contemporary works he acquired includes paintings by Turner and Henry Fuseli, and sculpture by Thomas Banks, Francis Chantrey and John Flaxman.
Inspired by Soane: entry to a magic world (Telegraph)