Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Mind reading

  • Comment
reviewHooked on Books: The Library of Sir John Soane, 1753-1837 At the Weston Gallery, DH Lawrence Pavilion, University Park, Nottingham, until 30 August

Along with all the casts, models, pictures and antique fragments that he amassed, John Soane was a voracious collector of books - 6,857 of them. Many can be seen in the ground-floor dining room of his house/ museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, where they are multiplied in the mirrors. But as the cocurator of this exhibition, Nicholas Savage, explains: 'they began to flow like invisible lava, depositing fragments of his library in underground pockets throughout the house.

Sometimes these deposits erupted in outcrops of glazed shelving, but more often they remained hidden behind cupboard doors.'

With those doors briefly opened, a sample of Soane's library is now on show in the unsympathetic setting of Marsh & Grochowski's DH Lawrence Pavilion in Nottingham's University Park. The items are grouped according to 10 themes, and as the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I is so prominent in the Soane Museum, it is no surprise to find that one of them is Egypt; or, remembering the 'Shakespeare Recess' off the museum's main staircase, that another confirms Soane's devotion to the playwright - there's even the First Folio of 1623, for which he paid £105 at auction.

Logically, too, there are sections that relate directly to the history and practice of architecture. Two editions of AbbÚ MarcAntoine Laugier's Essai sur l'architecture (rational construction, the primitive hut) are displayed, one French, the other an English translation; but Soane owned 10 copies of this book - some indication of its significance for him.

More unexpected, perhaps, is to find that another of the 10 themes is 'The Black Arts';

the title page of A System of Magick promising 'An Historical Account of Mankind's most early Dealing with the Devil; and how the Acquaintance on both Sides first begun'.

But such works are not so remote from the Gothic side of Soane, that he indulged in creating the Monk's Cell in his museum.We duly see Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard - one of Soane's more conventional purchases, perhaps, but spot-on for someone so preoccupied with mortality. A few artefacts, included to remind us of the books' usual context, add to the morbidity:

a wood and mother-ofpearl cross with a miniature carved skull (a gift to Soane); an ancient Peruvian vessel in the form of an animal carrying a human head.

There are books here which, whatever their contents, Soane must have enjoyed just as objects - among them, William Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, with its gilded Masonic symbols on dark blue calf (see left), though as Soane was architect to the United Grand Lodge of England, it was no doubt handy too. Others are open at a gorgeous illustration: clumps of papyrus by a river in John Hayter's A report upon the Herculaneum Manuscripts (above right);

vignettes of Vesuvius erupting - the handcoloured frontispiece to William Hamilton's Campi Phlegrµi (right).

They tantalise: you want to turn the pages and see what comes next but, of course, you can't.

This is one case where, resources permitting, technology comes to the rescue: at the Whitechapel's 'Mies in Berlin', for instance, you could leaf through G magazine on a touchsensitive screen.

It raises a question that the show doesn't address: what is the evidence of use as well as ownership? which pages did Soane actually turn?

With old books bought at auction, of course, assessing Soaneinduced wear-and-tear is difficult, but are there annotations in his hand? One of the most prolific annotators ever was Soane's near-contemporary, Coleridge, whose notes in the margins of other writers' works will themselves fill several huge volumes when they've all been published. In this Nottingham exhibition, though, only one book has such interpolations: a copy of Rousseau's Confessions, with a flyleaf sketch by Soane of Rousseau's Ermenonville tomb.

Perhaps the complete catalogue of Soane's library, now being prepared, will clarify this. Not that one should underestimate the effect that even an unopened book can have for some people, who drift into a creative reverie at just the sight of the spines.

Did Soane 'use' some of these volumes in such vague, associative ways?

Whether his readings were deep or superficial, however, what this small selection from his library makes clear is Soane's omnivorousness - we glimpse what inspired, haunted or consoled him as, in text and image, he annexed ever more of the world to feed his imagination and emotions. It is fascinating to follow in his wake, which this show lets us do.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs