Nothing beats the experience of entering Sir John Soane’s Museum in London for the first time. To step through the door of 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and be confronted with the Tardisian succession of spaces and walls dotted with works of art and plaster casts is to enter the mental world of its creator and first occupant. John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Old Houses of Parliament (now lost), the houses of Pitzhanger and Moggerhanger, was both a classic and an eclectic. His house-museum testifies to his zeal for collecting, his flair for spatial excitement and, in large part, his spirit. The museum is so crowded with ingeniously displayed artifacts that it’s hard to imagine this is just a small fraction of Soane’s complete collection. But next door, in a third of the terraced houses that Soane acquired to fulfill his increasingly outsized ambitions, and unknown to most visitors, the Soane Museum Library houses one of the largest collections of drawings by architecture in the world.
It would be impossible to put all this in public view. Architectural drawings are too delicate – the light washes of ink or watercolor that bring solidity and depth to these paper projects easily fade when exposed to light – and in many cases they are contained in bound volumes that would be difficult to display. In any case, there are simply too many. By the time of his death in 1837, Soane had amassed a collection of some 30,000 architectural drawings. Many were done by him or his office, but even more were collected to satisfy Soane’s appetite for acquiring masterpieces from other architects.
It would take a book of several hundred pages to illustrate all the designs in the collection, and the experience would overwhelm all but the most specialist reader (who could, anyway, turn to the museum’s excellent website). Frances Sands’ book deals with only a carefully curated selection of the collection’s most notable works – the “hidden masterpieces” of the book’s title. As curator of books and drawings at the Soane Museum, no one is better placed to make this selection than Sands and, by limiting the selection, she allows us to focus on the drawings themselves, each interpreted with a accompanying text insightful and placed in the context of Soane’s collection in a series of interpretive essays.
The examples chosen by Sands represent some of the finest architectural designs ever created. Examples range from John Thorpe’s design for Old Somerset House, considered the first consciously classically styled building in Britain, to Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s whimsical and richly chiaroscuro drawing of the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, to Soane’s imaginative rendering of the Bank of England. like a ruin executed by its draftsman Joseph Michael Gandy. Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor are also present, as are John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs, William Kent, William Chambers, Robert Adam, Sir John Nash and Soane himself.
Too often, architectural drawings are presented as dry artifacts, records of commissions that were never realized or of ambitious solutions whose architects were never able to fully convince their commissioners. The real art, we are led to believe, is in the buildings themselves. Sands’ book, however, allows us to appreciate these drawings for the beautiful art they are. Exquisite large-format color photographs show each of these designs at their best, and carefully chosen details allow one to revel in their technical accomplishment. It is, in short, the closest you can hope to sit in the Soane Museum Library outside of opening hours and leaf through Soane’s most treasured drawings.
As such the book has value both for the connoisseur, who will revel in the feast of technical mastery that is on display, and also for a more general reader for whom the detailed illustrations and engaging and informative commentary of Sands are a perfect introduction. to the art of architectural drawing. At just £35, this book is impossible to resist.
‘Architectural Drawings: Hidden Masterpieces from Sir John Soane’s Museum’ by Frances Sands is published by Batsford.