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Architecture's morbid genius

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A new exhibition at the Soane Museum presents an unmissable insight into the tangled trappings of John Soane’s mind, writes Flora Neville

According to a recent ComRes survey, two thirds of us feel too uncomfortable talking about death to plan for the inevitable. Death is to us in the 21st century what sex was to the Victorians; a terrible taboo.

‘Death and Memory, Soane and the Architecture of Legacy,’ the title of a new exhibition at the John Soane Museum in London, nuances the theme as is appropriate to this British sensibility but you can’t escape it: Death is the star of the show.

Death became, for Soane, a life-long fascination

The exhibition has been put together to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Eliza Soane, wife of the bricklayer-turned Royal Academician and famed architect John Soane.

The museum literature describes him as a ‘heartbroken’ man who ‘never recovered’ from Eliza’s premature death in 1815 from a burst gall bladder. But the exhibition shows something more interesting than any kind of ‘normal’ heartache for a lost loved one. It shows how death became, for Soane, a life-long fascination.

William or Nathaniel Dance Portrait miniature of Mrs Eliza Soane

William or Nathaniel Dance portrait miniature of Eliza Soane

Of the tens of thousands of objects in Soane’s collection, curator Dr Frances Sands says that a significant proportion are death related. There is a large memorial to Eliza’s dog, a huge Egyptian sarcophagus, and one of Eliza’s gold rings in which Soane encased a lock of his hero Napoleon’s hair.

Every surface, every book, every cushion, has the mark of the original owner who has just left the room but might be back at any moment

Soane even curated his afterlife, signing an Act of Parliament in 1833 to bequeath his home to the nation on the understanding that it would be maintained exactly as he left it. Every surface, every book, every cushion in the Soane Museum has the mark of the original owner who, it seems, has just left the room but might be back at any moment.

As Soane dictates from the grave how the house will stand in the present, so too does he envision how it will crumble and decay, as an extract from ‘Crude hints towards a history of my house,’ included in the exhibition shows. With some relish, Soane imagines the building in a state of dilapidation over which he still claims ownership.

Soane’s sealed repositories were another attempt at an after-death revival. Two months before his death in 1836, Soane sealed three separate containers – his bath tub, his dressing room and his drawers, with the instruction that they should be opened one at a time on 22 November (Eliza’s death date) in 1866, 1886, and 1896. Each time, the media worked itself into a frenzy; would they discover a painting by Soane’s good friend Turner locked inside? But each time the same disappointing assortment of newspaper cuttings, cheques, professional correspondence, old card cases, false teeth, lottery tickets and Eliza’s knitting needles emerged along with his canny wit from beyond the grave.

Soane is as bitter as he is witty, and perhaps the most heartbreaking piece in the exhibition is a copy of two articles his son George wrote anonymously, slamming his father’s architecture. George didn’t try all that hard to disguise himself and Eliza died suddenly soon after seeing the articles. In his wrath, Soane framed the cuttings on a black mount with the inscription, ‘Death blows given by George Soane.’ He then hung them at different times, by his bed, and in his bathroom, lest he should forget his bitterness.

‘Death Blows given by George Soane’

‘Death Blows given by George Soane’

Soane’s drawings for his family mausoleum at the St-Giles-in-the-field burial ground at St Pancras are included in the exhibition, along with subsequent construction sketches by the architect’s students, whose number included George Basevi, architect of the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. Basevi’s sketches show the mausoleum somewhere between earth and a heavenly realm, surrounded by poplar and willow trees, reminiscent, writes the museum’s Drawings cataloguer Tom Drysdale, of ‘classical arcadia.’ All Soane’s students treat the mausoleum with the same other-worldly reverence, perhaps sketching their way to an A grade by depicting the monument in such a way as they knew would please the master.

The mausoleum seems as much a part of Soane’s attempt to leave his stamp on architecture as it is a romantic gesture he designed as he mourned Eliza. Either way, it has certainly paid off; it is one of two memorial structures to be Grade I listed, (the other is Karl Marx’s in Highgate cemetery) and it inspired London’s red telephone boxes by Giles Gilbert Scott. Soane, I think, would have been delighted with the idea that every time someone stepped into one of these kiosks to make a call, they were sheltered by a structure inspired by his grave.

George Basevi, Bird’s-eye view of the Soane Family Tomb

George Basevi, Bird’s-eye view of the Soane Family Tomb

Death and Memory’ is on until 16 March 2016 at the John Soane museum, London

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