Unearthing the architectural treasures of Sir John Soane

Net purses made for John Soane by his grand-daughters, Christmas 1829. Picture: AccuSoft Inc.

Net purses made for John Soane by his grand-daughters, Christmas 1829. Picture: AccuSoft Inc. - Credit: Archant

A new book about the respected designer coincides with the reopening of part of his old home-turned-museum, writes Alison Oldham.

One of London’s architectural treasures is Sir John Soane’s Museum at Nos 12 and 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn.

The successful and respected architect established the houses, which he designed, as a museum by an Act of Parliament in 1833, requiring that his romantic and poetic interiors be kept as they were at the time of his death. This occurred four years later, aged 84. He had lived with his family in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for over 40 years.

What was life like for the Soanes and their servants was a question that intrigued Museum Archivist Susan Palmer. What did they drink? How did they keep warm? What was their social life like? Her illuminating book At Home with the Soanes was first published in 1997. It was republished this year by Maida Vale-based Pimpernel Press (£12.99) to coincide with the reopening, for the first time in over 160 years, of the Museum’s second floor, which consists of Soane’s private apartments and prized Model Room.

Years of research went into this study, subtitled Upstairs, Downstairs in 19th century London. One of the most fascinating chapters is Food and Drink, which ends with details of the Soanes’ Christmas celebrations. These do not seem to have been relaxing occasions as Soane worked most Christmas Days and Mrs Soane often visited the nearby Foundling Hospital.

Their last Christmas together, before Mrs Soane’s death in 1815, was marred by worry about their younger son, who was in the King’s Bench Prison for debt. Palmer records that “On 22 December George wrote to Soane threatening to commit suicide and on Christmas Eve the Under Marshall of the prison called at the house and left a bottle of poison which had been taken from George!”

There is little evidence of Christmas presents apart from the net purses Soane was given by his grand-daughters Elizabeth and Maria in 1829. Even drink was sometimes in short supply as Soane recorded in 1820 ‘Christmas Day!!! Mr and Mrs Conduit dined here. No Champaign!” And no stinting on exclamation marks then or now! Pimpernel Press is also distributing Mirabel Cecil’s children’s story The Journal of Mrs Soane’s Dog Fanny, by Herself. pimpernelpress.com