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An artful way with death

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Soane's Favourite Subject: The Story of Dulwich Picture GalleryAn exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 until 30 July

In her biography of Sir John Soane, Gillian Darley notes that when Dulwich Picture Gallery first opened to the general public in 1817, prospective viewers were required to purchase tickets in advance from designated shops in central London and then to make their way out, past fields and farms, to Dulwich village as best they could. But if the journey now is through rather less rural country, and the fabric of the gallery amended, extended and partially rebuilt over the years, its sense of purpose, as an accommodation of art and death, remains as Soane intended.

The current temporary exhibition, 'Soane's Favourite Subject: The Story Of Dulwich Picture Gallery', explains the origins of this architecturally prized building, providing a historical context for the recent refurbishment of the picture galleries and the new extension by Rick Mather.

The founding of the gallery sprang from an unusual sequence of events involving Soane and three principal players, the Frenchman Noel Desenfans, his Welsh wife and their younger Swiss friend, the painter Sir Francis Bourgeois. This artistically minded trio shared a central London house, close to Portland Place, where they amassed the large collection of paintings that would form the basis of the Dulwich collection. Soane's first commision from Bourgeois followed the death of Desenfans and was something of an oddity - a mausoleum in the back yard of their house.

His architectural appetite whetted, it is no surprise that Soane was eager to develop the theme of mausoleum and art gallery on the death of Bourgeois and the passing of the picture collection, and the two coffins, to Dulwich College. He became deeply involved in the project, investing effort in several alternative designs, waiving fees and even offering a loan to the college at one point. Although Bourgeois had envisaged his new resting place as relating to the college chapel, Soane saw fit to propose other locations, experimenting with different relationships between the existing buildings, the picture gallery and the mausoleum.

Alternative designs on show offer tantalising insights into what might have been had Soane's ambitions been given full rein. At one stage the mausoleum, with flanking arcades, is brought with - in a three sided quadrangle, and provides a dramatic focus to the overall composition. In terms of the gallery's elevational development, the tentative and somewhat confused early proposals can be followed, via various studies, to the more assured versions of Soane's final design.

This exhibition also charts the history of the gallery beyond Soane and into this century, through architectural drawings, photographs and a particularly informative large scale model.

Additions and proposals by Charles Barry (junior), E Stanley Hall and H Goodhart-Rendel bring the story to the 1930s. With the outbreak of war the building was not spared bomb damage, as photographs show - practically the whole of the west side was reduced to rubble in 1944.

Thankfully, sympathetic restoration followed and Soane's mausoleum was carefully rebuilt (although the discerning eye will note a particular 1950s feel to the ceiling's decorative winged figures).

As to the fate of the founders, there is a final twist to the story: the contents of their sarcophagi were apparently scattered by the wartime bomb blast and in trying to replace the bones in their respective resting places it is said that no one was sure which bones were which. Thus, in death, Bourgeois and the Desenfans were inextricably united, symbolically and physically, in Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Robert Birbeck is an architect in London

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