As Sir John Soane’s Museum pitches its weirder objects against each other on Twitter, we take a look at some of our favourites
Architect John Soane negotiated a private Act of Parliament in 1833 to preserve his London house and collection, exactly as it was arranged at the time of his death, in perpetuity – and to keep it open and free for inspiration and education.
Upon his passing in January 1837, a Board of Trustees took on the responsibility of upholding Soane’s wishes and today this unique house and his amazing collection of treasures attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.
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As anyone fortunate enough to have stepped inside the London museum knows, Soane’s is packed with wondrous treasures and works of art. But with its doors closed, the Museum has recently taken to Twitter to share some of the more unusual objects and to find the public’s favourites.
Ahead of the winner being announced on the social media platform next week, here are some of our favourites.
Ancient Greek fish man
This fish man comes from an engraved plate from James “Athenian” Stuart’s book ‘Antiquities of Athens’, and depicts a section of classical frieze.
The Antiquities of Athens was published in 1762 and is widely acknowledged as the spark that inspired a neo-classical and Greek revival in British architecture. Its author’s illustrations were the among the first accurate, to scale depictions of the wonders of Greece.
Skeleton in the closet
This skeleton was originally used for anatomical drawing, but Soane used it to enhance the gothic nature of his Monk’s Parlour.
Although its origins are unclear, the skeleton was previously an anatomical model belonging to Soane’s friend, the sculptor John Flaxman. In keeping with where skeletons were sourced from at the time, the skeleton may have been that of a criminal.
A large sea fungus
Soane was intrigued by this curious object, but did not know what it was – rather than a “large fungus from… Sumatra”, it is in fact a Neptune’s Cup Sponge. Growing up to 5 metres across, during the 1900s they were used as bathtubs for babies.
It was thought that the resulting over-harvesting drove the species to extinction in the early 20th century, but live specimens were discovered once more in 2011 off the coast of Singapore and Thailand.
A history of the black art
This fantastic engraving from the frontispiece of Daniel Defoe’s ‘System of Magick’, depicts a necromancer in his cell, summoning spirits from the dead.
Defoe’s book (full title, A system of magick; or, a history of the black art: Being an historical account of mankind’s most early dealing with the Devil; and how the acquaintance on both sides first begun) appeared in the mid to late 1720s. It is just one of an estimated 545 publications penned by Defoe whose colourful life encompassed various guises and enterprises including spy, wine and wool merchant, anonymous pamphleteer, non-conformist, prisoner, journalist, novelist and of course, author of Robinson Crusoe (1719).
The Soane’s Museum have no record of the provenance of this curious plaster beaver, which can be found near the Sarcophagus of Seti in the Sepulchral Chamber. Any theories are more than welcome.
Soane believed the origin of architecture lay in the natural forms of trees, and used this pair of twisted branches from an ash tree in Stanstead Park, Sussex to frame a window onto the sculpture-filled Monument Court.
Plumbing may seem mundane today, but it was a technological marvel in Soane’s day – hence why he proudly displayed this plan of his drainage system in his Dressing Room. The good quality paper and border suggest that this may have been intended as a presentation drawing.
The death of Count Ugolino
From the mundane to the sublime, this bas-relief in Soane’s study portrays a scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’, relating the tragic story of Count Ugolino, who starved to death in imprisonment along with his offspring. Why Soane put it right next to his writing desk at eye level is a mystery.
Soane found these mummified cats in the walls of buildings being demolished for two of his building projects. Soane tells us the first cat was found in a building being demolished for the building of the Bank of England, and the other was discovered in the wall of a house in Chelsea that he was demolishing to make way for an extension to the Royal Hospital.
The first cat arrived in 1803 and the other joined it nearly 30 years later in 1829. One had a rat in its mouth that now lies on the bottom of the glass case. The macabre practice of interring cats in walls may have been to ward off bad luck.
This is a tail fin from an incendiary bomb that dropped into the Library Dining Room through a window in World War 2, one of several incendiary bombs to damage the Museum during the Blitz. Collections were moved out of the museum during the war, but the Soane’s survived remarkably intact amidst the extensive damage wrought by the Luftwaffe on the capital.
Soane was a great admirer of Napoleon, particularly his influence on Parisian architecture, and added many Napoleonic items to his collection. The lock of Napoleon’s hair preserved in this ring was given to Soane by Elizabeth (‘Betsy’) Balcombe, the daughter of an official on St Helena who befriended the exiled Emperor. A deeply personal item, it was one of the few items Soane left to his family in his will. It was only acquired by the Museum in 2009.
This restored statue of the Ephesian Diana was bought by Soane for 64 guineas at Lord Bessborough’s Sale in Roehampton on 7 April 1801. The Ephesian Diana was a special form of the goddess Diana, representing her fertility through the rows of breasts that adorn the top of the statue.
David Garrick’s eyes
The expressive eyes in this print bring the celebrated actor David Garrick to life vividly. Garrick’s funeral in 1779 was one of the largest ever held before that of Nelson in 1806. Robert Edge Pine (1730-1788), who worked mainly in Bath, based this mezzotint upon his own drawing of Garrick’s death-mask, publishing it himself in 1779. He brought his drawing to life by adding the actor’s famously expressive eyes.
Get involved and catch up with the John Soane’s Museum collection on Twitter
Sir John Soane's Museum
London, Greater London
The architect Sir John Soane's house, museum and library at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields has been a public museum since the early 19th century. Soane designed this house to live in, but also as a setting for his antiquities and his works of art. On his appointment as Professor…