Stuffed: Sir John Soane’s interiors and some thoughts on scale

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Soane office, Comparative elevation of St Peter's, Rome, and sections of the Pantheon, Rome, the Radcliffe Library, Oxford, and the Rotunda, Bank of England. Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 23/2/2.


The gray bulk of St. Peter’s looms against a pale sky. Michelangelo’s ovoid dome is darkened almost to the point of silhouette, and Carlo Maderno’s overbroad façade has been slimmed down, stretched up, and stripped of its ornament. Perched on the plinth that separates St. Peter’s basilica from his square is a section through the Pantheon, pochéd in millennial pink and graced with a warm, faintly aureate interior from which all coffering has been scrubbed. Within this volume, James Gibb’s Radcliffe Camera at Oxford exists in the round, its tiny white lantern, tipped in slate, thrusting just shy of the Roman oculus above. And in the ambiguous space afforded by paper and projection, still apparently on St. Peter’s platform and under the dome of the Pantheon, but seeming, also, to have telescoped backward into the Camera, is a section through Sir John Soane’s Rotunda at the Bank of England, glimmering like a burnished, overturned teacup. A section is pressed into an elevation enclosed within a section set in front of an elevation; a concatenation of architecture is contextualized, compared, and contained by itself.

This is the most complex of a series of “comparative views” sprinkled among the hundreds of illustrations Soane and his office prepared for his lectures on architecture at the Royal Academy in London (1809-1815).1 Beyond the didactic commentary on the smallness of British secular architecture at the turn of the nineteenth century compared to Roman and papal grandeur, what matters in such compositions is not so much relative scale, as scale as such. A simpler composition stacks a section through Soane’s Accounting Office at the Bank of England, rendered in cardstock buff, against an orange-rimmed section through the gargantuan Assembly Rooms at York; beyond, confusingly depicted as if it belonged to the same architectural space, is the muddy, open-faced ruin of the Basilica of Constantine in Rome. Details are increasingly effaced in reality but also by design; the Basilica is in fact much less figured than Soane’s diminutive interior, but not nearly as blank as rendered here; and the colorful scagliola of the Assembly Rooms has been neutralized with a brown monochrome wash. The effect is of a Lilliputian bas-relief propped in front of a darkening series of voids – an interior offset from the larger, older, less friendly interiors that envelop it with uncanny completeness.

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Soane office, Comparative sections of the Basilica of Constantine, Rome, the Assembly Rooms at York, and the Accountants' Office, Bank of England. Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 23/2/3.

Two variants of the nested cup scheme appear in other Soane lecture illustrations. One presents his Doric Vestibule at the Bank of England – itself a matryoshka sequence of small interiors – within the Temple of Minerva like a delicate specimen in a glass cloche; the central clerestory window of the Temple doubles the darkened arch of Soane’s iteration as a luminous blank. The other shows the blue-tinged atmosphere of England pooled in the basin of a section through the Coliseum in Rome, directly above the slate roof of the Circus at Bath. The triumph of Georgian real-estate speculation is here cozily fitted within the gladiatorial grounds of the older Imperial relic, its highest reaches revealed to stop well short of the Coliseum’s great ring of spectator seating.  The Roman amphitheatre is to the Circus what a mountain and its weather are to the lodge at its base.

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Soane office, Comparative sections of the Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome, and the Doric Vestibule, Bank of England. Sir John Soane’s Museum, SM 23/2/5.

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Soane office, Comparative section of the Colosseum, Rome, and elevation of the Circus at Bath. Sir John Soane’s Museum, SM 23/2/1.

These views push the imagination toward ever-larger architectures and ever-smaller ones on the condition that architecture, understood in strict scalar logic, only has room for more of itself. In its tightest disciplinary packaging, any one instance of architecture becomes so much architectural stuff, available in turn to be stuffed inside more architectural stuff, up to the scale of the planet and its atmosphere, and down to the individual atoms of bricks and the dust motes surfing interior currents of air. 


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Eliza Soane died on November 15, 1815. Her husband emerged from deep mourning in April of the following year to design her tomb: a lavish if small affair complicated by scalar gymnastics.2 The enclosing balustrade incorporates a number of acroteria which repeat in miniature in the profile of the Portland stone rail, as if it were a tiny roofline – a fussy design supported by a crowded series of mass-produced, Coade-stone balusters that become, by way of relative position, a kind of small colonnade. The stone baldachin within this is composed of a low canopy dome weighted by heavy lintels, with a central lantern rendered without lights: a solid, funereal form. This assemblage is set on square-sectioned columns into which the proportions and volutes of the Ionic order have been traced, as if the rounded forms had yet to be cut. Within this frame is a rectangular bar of Carrara marble inscribed with Eliza’s epitaph, luminous and faintly insubstantial. A reduced architectural integer –the bullion-cube form of “temple,” – it stands for Eliza, marking her absence with its presence and also marking her presence, as remains interred below it, with its refusal to contain anything at all.

But if the inner monument is a concentrate of funerary monuments in general, the outer canopy is a concentrate of Soane’s monuments in specific. As Sir John Summerson has noted, that low dome, caught by its corners like a lofted sheet and capped with a central drum, is the signature move of a Soanian interior, and one he explored across a variety of scales, from the institutional (at the Bank of England Stock Office) to the domestic (in Soane’s breakfast room at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields) to the scale of the individual object (the case he designed for a custom Vulliamy clock). At Eliza’s tomb this motif passes, as Summerson puts it, “from positive to negative,” as if it could carry seamlessly from the mold to be stuffed to the stuff so molded.3

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Sir John Summerson, diagram showing Soane’s lantern-dome motif as positive and negative, from his Sir John Soane: 1753-1837 (London: Art and Technics, 1952), 31.

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Joseph Gandy, Interior View of the "Bank Stock Office" at the Bank of England looking toward the North, presentation drawing dated 7 June 1798. Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 11/4/1.

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Sir John Soane, Breakfast Parlour at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Photo by Martin Charles

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Eight-day quarter-chiming table clock, London, c.1835, for an existing case c.1812-35, probably designed by Soane, the dial and movement by Benjamin Vulliamy,m(1780-1854), London, No. 1245, walnut, gilt bronze, brass, enamel, steel, silk and glass. 48x29.5x29.5 cm. Sir John Soane’s Museum XF146.

13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is famously stuffed with stuff, much of which is directly architectural (fragments, casts, and models), some of which is generally collectable (Canalettos, ivory chairs, ancient relics), a small subset of which is mildly perverse (two mummified cats and a rat discovered during various demolitions and arranged in a glass case), and none of which is actually stuffed (excepting certain pieces of furniture), even though the house itself is so inducive to that general impression that many visitors have included phantom pieces of taxidermy in their accounts. It is also labyrinthine, layered, and cramped, confusing the modern visitor (who is, perhaps, slightly larger than her nineteenth-century counterpart) with shifting scalar feints and the overall impression that the house is so completely occupied by itself that any human presence renders it overfull.

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Joseph Gandy, View of part of the Museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, section through Dome area and Basement, Watercolor on paper, 1811. Sir John Soane’s Museum P384.

Soane had an interest in geology and paleontology that went beyond the polite enthusiasm of nineteenth-century educated elites, and his notes and newspaper clippings show a tendency to apply the new concept of species extinction, so convincingly demonstrated by Georges Cuvier, to architecture.4 Cuvier’s scalar comparisons between “the scattered and mutilated fragments” of vanished species and the bones of living beings paralleled Soane’s approach to “the precious fragments...the principles that directed the great artists of antiquity.”5 In both cases the intent was the same: to structure the disjecta membra of the past into generative insights for the future.

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Henry Parke (Soane Office), Comparative plans & elevations of Noah's Ark and a Man of War. Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 23/3/10.

One of the more startling scalar comparisons produced for Soane’s Royal Academy lectures positions a brightly lit and highly detailed view of a contemporary Man of War in front of a fainter Noah’s Ark, rendered in its traditional, over-architecturalized and hardly seaworthy guise of a floating, open-sided, double-height block crammed with representative species. The first recorded brush with mass extinction within the short span of human history is here coupled with the latest in national security, signaling that existential fear, too, spans widely disparate scales. Ship-logic and land-logic cross-contaminate the strains of architecture that profit from compact, nested spaces within watertight shells. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields the systematicity and material of a natural history collection literally crosses with that of the architectural museum; in addition to volutes and vases, Soane amassed ammonites, a trilobite, an elephant’s tooth, various corals, a petrified log, and the like, strewing their natural forms amongst his architectural objects like seaweed washed up with the flotsam and jetsam of the discipline. Long after taxonomical arrangements had displaced Wunderkammer, Soane’s house-museum jettisoned serial classification in favor of proximate affinities that suggested fantastic kinships.

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Joseph Gandy, Design perspective for the decoration of the Library and Drawing Room at Soane's country house, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, Watercolor on Paper. Sir John Soane’s Museum P94.

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Joseph Gandy, Design perspective for the decoration of the Breakfast Room at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, Watercolor on Paper. Sir John Soane’s Museum P95.

Two perspectives of interiors at Pitzhanger Manor, Soane’s first family residence, hint that this juxtaposed stuff included Eliza herself. The site of his most elaborate dreams of a dynasty, beginning with his own sons and extending to pupils, apprentices, and employees, Pitzhanger was Soane’s self-portrait in architecture and the clearest concretization of his closest relationships. Soane commissioned Joseph Gandy, his talented draughtsman, to render views of proposed decoration schemes for the home’s breakfast room and library in 1802.6 In each case Soane’s designs were closely tailored to his stuff, precisely rendered with Gandy’s fine eye for detail. And in each case Eliza hovers in the deep space of the interiors, a ghostly scale figure trapped within the low canopies that prefigure her tomb.

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Model for the Soane Tomb, St Pancras Gardens, London, Painted wood, 51.8 x 22.2 x 22.2 cm. Sir John Soane’s Museum L78.

Clocks are already memento mori. Soane displayed his clock case that so precisely recalls Eliza’s tomb within the breakfast room of his house-museum, a human-scale interior that the case and the tomb also closely resemble. Nearby, an architectural model of the tomb itself is fitted into a structural cavity directly adjacent to Soane’s dining table. The effect in both cases is to link the metabolic function of stuffing one’s interior – temporarily staving off death via caloric consumption – to the stuffing of one architectural interior inside another. By feeding architecture to itself, in effect, Soane ultimately connected his profession to the stuffing of life; rich but deadly, like a taxidermied Turducken. At 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane’s stuff (including his wife, apparently) is ultimately more dead weight than live collection: a floating burden of stilled menageries inside a land-locked Ark. The question for us is whether architecture today remains more a matter of stuff than substance – whether it is concerned with producing tchotchkes that clutter up the world rather than objects that change it. Or perhaps we need more dead storage; if the anthropocene is already upon us, what might matter most is the stratigraphic stuff we leave for geologists of the future.

  1. This range of dates covers Soane’s preliminary lecture in 1809, lectures I-IV in 1810, the hiatus in 1811 caused by the uproar at Soane’s critical remarks on the work of other living academicians in lecture IV; the resumption of lectures in 1813, beginning again with lecture I and continuing through lecture VI; a second hiatus in 1814 due to the ill health of Eliza, Soane’s wife, and Soane’s delivery of a second series of lectures VII-XII in 1815. Soane ceased lecturing in 1816, when Eliza Soane died, and began the entire series again in 1817. See Susan Palmer, “Chronology of the delivery of Sir John Soane’s Royal Academy Lectures,” in David Watkin, Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 731-732. Margaret Richardson and David Watkin place this illustration as part of Soane’s final lecture XII, given by Soane in 1815 and read on his behalf by Henry Howard in 1833 and again in 1835. See their “Appendix 2: List of Soane’s lecture illustrations at the Royal Academy,” op. cit., 693, and Palmer, “Chronology,” 732.

  2. A rendering by Joseph Michael Gandy obliquely registers the tomb’s ambiguous scale in the context of an imaginary, Ermenonville-esque landscape. As Christopher Woodward has noted, if the monument presented in Gandy’s painting were true to scale, the people depicted at its entrance would be eighteen inches tall. Christopher Woodward, “The Soane Family Tomb,” in John Soane Architect: Master of Space and Light, ed. Margaret Richardson and MaryAnne Stevens (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1999), 146-147.

  3. John Summerson, Sir John Soane: 1753-1837 (London: Art and Technics, 1952), 31-32. Brackets added.

  4. Soane followed Cuvier’s career closely and acquired a bust of the paleontologist and an English translation of his Le Règne Animal (1817) for his house-museum.

  5.  Georges Cuvier, “Introduction,” Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadruped (1812). The first part of this work was translated into English and published separately as Essay on the Theory of the Earth in 1813, together with a preface by the Scottish geologist Robert Jameson. The excerpt quoted in English here is from this translation. Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth, 3rd ed., (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1817), 1-2. Soane, “Royal Academy Lecture I,” in Watkin, 499.

  6. See Heather Ewing, “Pitzhanger Manor,” in John Soane Architect: Master of Space and Light, ed. Margaret Richardson and MaryAnne Stevens (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1999), 146-147.