Archive: John Soane and the furniture of death
Originally published in March 1978
In the summer of 1776, John Soane, aged 23, was working against time on a design for a triumphal bridge. He was competing for the Royal Academy’s gold medal for the second time and desperately wanted to win. Earning a wage in the office of Henry Holland, he could apply himself to the triumphal bridge only after office hours and on Sundays. Accordingly, when two friends asked him to join them in a boating party at Greenwich, to celebrate the birthday of one of them, he declined. The boating party took place. There was an accident and one of the lads, who could not swim, was drowned. Soane could not swim; he, too, would have perished.1 Thus, providentially, the young architect escaped death by drowning and was duly awarded the Royal Academy’s Medal.
Moved and perhaps not a little exalted, he expressed his feelings in a design dedicated to the memory of his dead friend and in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1777 appeared a drawing entitled ‘Design for a Mausoleum to the Memory of James King Esq, drowned June 9, 1776’. The design was not in the nature of a structure to enclose Mr King’s remains (if indeed they were ever recovered), but an architectural composition, seeming to be offered much as a poet might offer a funeral elegy in similar circumstances. The mausoleum was on the grandest scale with a central domed chapel on a podium joined by diagonal wings to four pyramids and containing accommodation for 84 coffined bodies, with, in addition, 24 receptacles for ashes. The design, 1, was engraved and occupies two of the plates in the slim octavo Designs in Architecture which Soane published in 1778.2
There was nothing very extraordinary about this performance. Mausolea were favourite subjects for young architects airing their talents and inviting patronage, and the reasons for this are obvious. The mausoleum is a classical type capable of infinite variation. Since the dead do not require air, light and warmth but only shelter and veneration, the mausoleum is a theme round which the imagination can freely play. Soane’s design was not, by standards of the time, novel or extravagant. It owed much to a series of designs which Sir William Chambers had made, 25 years earlier, on the occasion of the death of Frederick Prince of Wales in 1751, when Chambers himself was looking for notice in high quarters.3
(1) Soane’s tribute to his friend James King, drowned in a boating accident in the Thames in I776. The design was exhibited at the RA in the following year and engraved in ‘Designs in Architecture’, 1778. (This article was originally read as a paper to the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, September I973.)
In 1778 Soane went to Italy as the Royal Academy’s travelling student. He was there for two years, during which his taste moved towards a more severe and restrained classicism, with a Greek content which Chambers would not have tolerated. A mausoleum design, dated 1779, takes the upper part of the King design and recasts it with a new horizontal emphasis in Greek Doric;4 a companion design varies it again in Greek Ionic. These were perhaps the designs exhibited at the RA in 1781. The list of Soane’s Academy exhibits in subsequent years includes a design for a mausoleum in 1784, another in 1792 and a design for a ‘national’ mausoleum in 17995. To 1800 belongs a beautifully rendered drawing, 2, based on a design published in the same book as the ‘King’ design in 1778.
All were imaginary projects, for in those years Soane was increasingly busy designing and building houses for the living and no commission as yet contained anything in the nature of a tomb-chamber. Soane’s only three-dimensional exercises in the funerary field up to 1800 were the elegant little sarcophagus for Miss Johnstone (1784) in St Mary Abbots churchyard, 3, and a mural monument in the now lost church of St Stephen, Coleman Street.6
But the mausoleum, the sarcophagus and the cinerary urn were becoming objects of reference of increasing importance to Soane as a designer. At the first house he built for himself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (No 12) in 1792 there is already a back room on the ground floor which has a low, vaulted ceiling like a Roman tomb-chamber, 4.7 And when we come to his country house, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, built in 1800, we see that the classical furniture of death was indeed taking hold of his imagination.
(2) One of the series of ideal designs for mausolea begun in 1777 and continuing till 1805. This highly finished design, related to a much earlier one, is dated 2 February 1800.
When Soane bought Pitzhanger it consisted of a plain box of a house with a more recent wing containing two beautiful rooms designed by his first master, George Dance. Soane preserved the wing but rebuilt the main house. In doing so he was, again, his own employer. He was 47. He was fairly rich from the property left by his wife’s uncle. He was an ARA and architect to the Bank of England. Secure in wealth and status, he built for his own pride and pleasure.
The visitor to Pitzhanger enters the drive through an arch, 5, which at once arrests. The red brick arch springs from stone imposts lodged between piers of markedly funereal character. Each pier consists of coupled pilasters of rough flint rising from a pedestal, joined at the top by a delicately moulded stone band and then capped by what is evidently the lid of a cinerary urn.8 The mixture of brick, stone and flint is very strange for London. (Did Soane perhaps discover this combination in Norfolk where he was much employed in his early practice?) .. It is intended to strike a ‘primitive’ note, like some of the cottage designs he had published in 1793.9 The urn lids, however, are nothing if not sophisticated. Each has a tiny wreath with flying ribbons carved on each face. Each lid was originally surmounted by a vase but these have vanished.
Sophisticated, again, is the object which crowns the arch - a scrolled acroterium such as is often found on the sides or ends of antique sarcophagi. An eagle within a wreath is carved on the front.
The Pitzhanger gateway is of no little significance in the history of the Soane style but for the moment we must leave it and pass on to the house. Here we are confronted by an architectural set piece, in brown brick and Portland stone. The principal features are four detached Ionic columns supporting restored versions of the Erectheum caryatids. There are no windows in the upper storey, only carved panels with antique motifs. There is a high central attic, again with a carved panel. If there are no specifically mortuary features here the facade warns us that a more than ordinary solemnity is likely to be discovered within.
(3) The tomb of Elizabeth Johnstone in the churchyard of St Mary Abbots, Kensington. Based on an antique sarcophagus type, the 148 design was made in 1784.
We enter the house and find ourselves in a barrel-vaulted corridor. The vault is interrupted, half way along, by a vertical shaft with windows which admit almost no light because they look into rooms. The top of the shaft is like an urn lid, turned inside out-a theme which obsessed Soane and which we shall meet in another context.
On our right is the front parlour, 6, a room 17ft square, the size dictated by the foundations of the old house. The ceiling is an extremely flat dome with incised ornaments and, in the spandrels, angels in low relief, carrying wreaths in their outstretched hands. The wall-arches which carry the dome rest on piers which incorporate draped mourning figures. To complete the picture of the room as it was in Soane’s time, we must refer to the darkly lit perspective drawing made for him by J. M. Gandy. Here we see that the walls were decorated in the style of a Roman villa excavated in 1777 and recorded in coloured engravings which Soane possessed. 10 We see also that the walls on either side of the fireplace were fitted as columbaria, containing Roman cinerary urns and vases. We know where these came from because Soane had been buying such things, evidently with an eye to Pitzhanger. The Cawdor sale in 1800, the Bessborough and Duke of St Albans sales in 1801, the Clerk and Mendip sales in 1802 provided n early all.11 In Gandy’s drawing the great Cawdor vase stands on its own pedestal opposite the fireplace.
Opening from this room is the back parlour, 7, with a vaulted ceiling painted with trellis, much like the back room, just mentioned, at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. To dado height the walls are lined with book-shelves. Above these are niches, each containing an urn surmounted by a marble vase. Both rooms, but especially the front parlour, give something of the feeling of a tomb chamber. With the great store of urns still in place the sense of present death must have been suffocating. Shortly after the building of Pitzhanger, things like sarcophagi with acroteria as at the Pitzhanger gateway began to appear on the new skyline of the Bank of England, 8. In 1804 an obelisk, commissioned by a Mr Simeon, was built in Reading market -place; it had three sides with an urn lid at the summit carrying a colonette with a pineapple.12 In 1806, Soane built a massive tomb, an overgrown sarcophagus with a square urn and vase on top, over the grave of Samuel Bosanquet, a Bank director, at Leyton (this, alas, has vanished in the past few years).13 Then in 1807 he was drawn into a situation where death and burial opened new and rather special vistas for funerary invention. This was occasioned by the death in that year of Noel Desenfans, art collector and man of letters, and the Desenfans story is of sufficient interest to be told in full. 14
(4) the tomb-like breakfast room in No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane’s first London house, built in 1792. Since 1970 it has been part of the Soane Museum, next door at No 13.
Desenfans had come from Paris to England as a young man, apparently as a teacher of languages but already with some small reputation as a writer. This he increased somewhat in England, but the main thing in his life was a love of pictures. He was introduced to the Prince Primate of Poland, King Stanislas’s brother, who obtained for him the post of Polish consul-general in Britain and, more significantly, a commission from Stanislas to form a collection of pictures which should constitute the nucleus of a Polish national gallery. In this, Desenfans was very successful. However, in 1795 came the third partition of Poland and the abdication of Stanislas. The Russian government repudiated the King’s debts to Desenfans and the pictures were left on his hands. He sold some of them in 1800 but continued collecting at his house in Charlotte (now Hallam) Street and entertained very handsomely in a dining-room hung with superb Poussins.
The Desenfans household was rather curious. Desenfans had an English wife but no children, and a third member of the household was an artist of Swiss extraction, Peter Francis Bourgeois. Bourgeois was 11 years younger than Desenfans who had known him since he was a boy and had, in fact, made his career for him. He had persuaded him to study painting instead of taking a commission in the army and it must have been Desenfans who obtained for him in 1791 the post of painter to the King of Poland. This was followed by conferment of some sort of Polish decoration which Bourgeois persuaded himself was the equivalent of a knighthood. Three years later Bourgeois was appointed landscape painter to George III who sanctioned the anglicised use of the title. Sir Francis Bourgeois, as he then became, never married. He lived with the two Desenfans till Noel Desenfans’s death. He then inherited, jointly with Mrs Desenfans, the house in Charlotte (Hallam) Street with all the furniture, linen and plate. More important, he himself inherited the whole of the great collection of pictures.15
(5) The gateway to Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, 1800. The flint-and-brick piers terminate in urn lids and over the arch is an acroterium of a type associated with antique sarcophagi. The gateway stands today as shown in G. J . Richardson’s sketch, though the vases on the urn lids have vanished.
The legacy of the pictures was unconditional. There was, however, a strong moral obligation on Bourgeois to deal with them according to his friend’s often expressed wishes, which were that they should be kept together and made available to the public. Bourgeois very properly identified himself with his deceased benefactor’s intentions.
There was a further obligation on Bourgeois and this brings us back to our central theme. A sentence in Desenfans’s will, made nearly four years before his death, runs as follows: ‘I desire to be laid in a leaden coffin and kept in my own House till the Executor of this my last will shall have prepared a vault where I may be removed’;16 the executor, of course, being Bourgeois. There are no further directions but one can hardly doubt that an understanding had been reached in Desenfans’s lifetime as to the nature and location of the ‘vault’. It was to be, in fact, a domestic mortuary chapel on the premises at 38 Charlotte (Hallam) Street. For such a work Soane may well have seemed to Bourgeois the most proper architect. As fellow academicians they knew each other well and Soane, obviously, had the right feeling for the subject. Bourgeois would no doubt remember a design of Soane’s in the Academy of 1801, for ‘a Sepulchral Church’ (probably intended for Tyringham).17
Desenfans had died on 8 July 1807. By 15 August Soane had made preliminary designs, one of which was accepted. The chapel, which was to accommodate not only Desen- 150 fans but, eventually, his wife and his friend, was begun in that month and completed by November.
(6) The front parlour at Pitzhanger Manor, seen in a drawing by Joseph Michael Gandy, exhibited at the RA in 1803. The urns and vases were bought by Soane at various sales between 1800 and 1802.
(7) The back parlour at Pitzhanger. Another drawing by Gandy, lit in a way which emphasises the character of the room as an antique tomb-chamber. The ceiling resembles that in 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields (4).
Desenfans’s desire (if, indeed, it was his and not Bourgeois’s) for the domestic conservation of his corpse in unconsecrated ground which was not even freehold may strike us as strange, but there does not seem to be any great mystery about it. Desenfans was not irreligious, though his beliefs probably were of the somewhat abstract deistical kind, common among intellectuals of the period. There are phrases in his will concerning God, the soul and forgiveness; and it seems that religious services were conducted in the mausoleum by a minister of the Church of England. If an explanation is required it lies, perhaps, quite simply in an aesthete’s desire to be as fastidious in his own disposal as he had been or would have wished to be in the selection and disposal of fine works of art. He may well have felt a distaste for interment in the over-full churchyard at St Marylebone or the uninviting parochial cemetery at Paddington Street.
Whatever the case, Soane interpreted Bourgeois’s wishes to the entire satisfaction of all concerned. On the ridiculously cramped site of an old stable (now a parking space at the north end of Hallam Street), he planned a circular temple with an interior peristyle of ·six Greek Doric columns supporting a low dome with an oculus, 9. The chamber was otherwise windowless, but a segment of it was cut away to join a smaller rectangular chamber, the mausoleum, brilliantly lit from a lantern light in the roof. The mausoleum provided accommodation for three sarcophagi. From the dark, circular chamber one looked through an arch into the irradiated mausoleum- a Baroque effect contrived in the severer terms of the age which had discovered Greece.l8
After the building of the chapel, Bourgeois turned his thoughts to the realisation of Desenfans’s ambitions for his collection. One possible solution was to keep the pictures where they were. Desenfans had owned the leases not only of the Charlotte Street house but of two adjoining houses numbered in what is now Great Portland Street.19 All three houses had passed to Bourgeois and Mrs Desenfans. If the freehold of these properties could be acquired, Desenfans’s collection could be rooted in perpetuity in the St Marylebone soil. And it must have occurred to Bourgeois that this would also solve the problem of maintaining a corpse, or corpses, in a mausoleum which, as things stood, would in 1874 revert to the ground landlord, the Duke of Portland. Bourgeois therefore wrote to the Duke, begging to be allowed to purchase the reversion of the properties. Promptly and curtly, without even the courtesy of acknowledging the assumed knighthood, the Duke replied that he would do no such thing.
(8) The Lothbury front of the Bank of England, with its funereal skyline of sarcophagi and vases. The drawing, dated 1807, shows the work soon after completion.
(9) The accepted design for the Desenjans Bourgeois mausoleum in Charlotte (now Hallam) Street, built in 1807; the prototype of the one built jour years later at Dulwich.
Bourgeois’s letter to the Duke is dated January 1810. On 20 December of the same year he made his will.20 He was probably then suffering from the effects of a riding accident of which he died two weeks later, aged 55. In the short year between the Duke’s refusal and the accident he had made up his mind as to the future of the pictures. J. P. Kemble, the actor, an old and close friend of Desenfans, is said to have prompted the decision; but the Rev Robert Corry, a Fellow of Dulwich College who had conducted services in the chapel at Charlotte Street, may also have been an influence. The decision, in any case, was to leave the whole of the collection to the 11 College of God’s Gift at Dulwich, with the addition of £10 000 for its suitable maintenance and £2 000 for improving the west wing of the college, where a gallery already existed, for the reception of the pictures. Bourgeois had hinted to the Warden of Dulwich, that Soane would be the right architect for these improvements.
Bourgeois’s body was presumably enclosed in the second of the three sarcophagi at Charlotte Street, but it was not to remain there for long. It soon became obvious that ‘improvement’ of the existing gallery at Dulwich, however extensive, would not make adequate provision for the collection. Mrs Desenfans, now an old lady, living alone with the bodies of the two men in the back yard, offered to put down £6000 at once, to be put to another £6000 found by the College , to pay for a separate picture gallery at Dulwich combined with a mausoleum- a replica, more or less, of that existing at Charlotte Street. Soane was commissioned by the College and produced an estimate, comfortably within the imposed limits, on 12 July. The building was begun. On 19 April 1813 Mrs Desenfans made her will, directing that her remains be deposited in the Dulwich mausoleum and making Soane one of her executors.21 She died before 9 August 1814 by which time the building was well advanced. In September, the pictures were removed from Charlotte Street and displayed in the gallery.
The chapel and mausoleum at Dulwich are, internally, virtual duplicates of what was built at Charlotte Street. Externally, they are something new for the simple reason that the building at Charlotte Street, jammed between three boundary walls, had no exterior in the architectural sense. At Dulwich, Soane had to invent one.22 For the gallery as a whole he had adopted, partly for economy and partly as a gesture towards the old college buildings, alleged to be by Inigo Jones, the ‘primitivist’ style we noted in the Pitzhanger gateway. The mausoleum followed the same style and may be thought of The chapel and mausoleum at Dulwich are as a Roman tomb type reduced to bare essentials, 10, Robert Adam’s towers at Mistley providing a significant link. Built of ordinary London stocks with little stone, it is, nevertheless, precise and subtle; sombre, too, with those three doors which not only never open but have nothing behind them, 11. Three cenotaphs on the parapet demonstrate the building’s purpose. The lantern, taut, thin and luminous, carries funeral vases and terminates in yet another sarcophagus motif. The Dulwich mausoleum was hit by a bomb in the Second World War and half ruined. But it was loyally restored and today the visitor is allowed to peer into the chapel through iron gates. The compartment beyond, with the porphyry-painted sarcophagi, is bathed in yellow light filtering through stained glass in the lantern- the lumiere mysterieuse which so much impressed Soane in churches he had seen abroad.23 It is all very melancholy and there is not a Christian symbol to be seen, 12, 13.
(10) The mausoleum at the Dulwich Art Gallery, as rebuilt after partial destruction in the Second World War. It was originally finished in 1812.
During the years when Soane was engaged on these two successive funerary monuments he was busy in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, first with an extension to his house, No 12, to provide an exhibition space for antique marbles and casts and, later, building a new house next door to the old, the house which was in due course to become the Soane Museum. The whole process lasted from 1808 till 1813, a period exactly parallel with the Desenfans Bourgeois enterprise. We need not follow the story in detail. What concerns us is the extent to which associations with death and sepulture enter into it.
The earliest sketches for the extension to No 12 are dated 11 June 1808.24 They show the exhibition space as extending from the basement up through two storeys to a lantern light. The basement portion is marked ‘catacombs’. On a basement plan of 28 July, ‘catacombs’ are relegated to a passage-way to the north of the main space;25 the central area has become ‘model room’, while on the south is a chamber marked ‘mausoleum’. This measures only 8ft 5in by 2ft 7in and could have been intended to be top-lit. What was it for? It is, I suppose, just possible that Soane, having so recently assisted in the interment of Noel Desenfans’s corpse on his own premises, was considering equivalent accommodation for himself. If that is so, it was a passing thought. In later drawings the ‘mausoleum’ has vanished.
(11) Detail of one of the three false doorways in the mausoleum at Dulwich.
The basement of the new structure had, nevertheless, begun to be thought of as a place for exhibits of a melancholy kind. In 1810, Soane gave up his country house at Ealing and brought the antique urns and other treasures which he had there to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1812, his neighbour at No 13, a Mr George Booth Tyndale, whose stables he had already acquired and demolished, agreed to sell to Soane the whole of his house on condition that Soane leased to him his house at No 12. The exchange of houses was settled on 13 .July 1812 and Soane immediately demolished No 13 and rebuilt it as a house-museum, very much as it still exists.26 The exhibition space of 1808 was cut off from No 12 and entered from No 13. Today we call it ‘the dome’. The basement continued to be the receptacle for sepulchral objects but it was not for another 10 years that its character as a tomb-chamber was ratified and confirmed by the arrival of the Belzoni sarcophagus. Of that more presently. In 1813, the year that Soane, with his wife, moved into the new house, he was 60. The building of the De Loutherbourg monument at Chiswick, 14, a tall, elegant and slightly sinister chest-tomb, with an affinity to the false doors at Dulwich, belongs to this year. 27 Just after Christmas he became seriously ill and in March 1814 underwent an operation. In the following year he had the satisfaction of being appointed one of the three architects to the newly-constituted Board of Works and, as architect to the Bank, received flattering attentions from the Emperor of Russia. But trouble came in 1815 with Mrs Soane’s illness, exacerbated by the behaviour of her son, George, who saw fit to ridicule his father’s architecture in some magazine articles.
Mrs Soane, deeply hurt by this, died on 22 November 1815. She was buried nine days later in the burial ground of St Giles-in-the-Fields, which adjoins old St Pancras church. The date of burial, 1 December, is the date on a drawing (not in Soane’s hand) for a brick vault, to which we must assume that the coffin was transferred in due course. 28 It measures 7ft 3in by 4ft 9in. Over this vault, Soane was to erect one of his most bizarre and idiosyncratic monuments. Among the many preparatory designs for the monument, the earliest dated drawing is of 14 February 1816, but there are undated drawings which are certainly earlier. As all the designs are on the same general lines it is fair to assume that the basic idea had been adopted very soon after the event which called it forth. In the simplest terms the idea is of a monolithic convex canopy supported on four square piers, all in stone, sheltering a more delicate monument in a more precious material- marble; the whole standing within an enclosure facilitating access to the vault. One of the early drawings shows the canopy as brutally crude and primitive-almost like a dolmen, 15.29 By stages it becomes more refined but still is in determined contrast to the delicate Ionic monument within. All sorts of variations occur. In two drawings a figure of death is shown emerging from the pedestal of the canopy and hurling a spear at the marble monument, 16, as does the wild Rococo skeleton in Roubiliac’s Nightingale monument in Westminster Abbey.30
Another considered feature was a gateway before the enclosure, carrying a pedimented lintel. This was eliminated, and a modest iron gate substituted. Beyond this gate is a sunken area, a pit, where one would expect to find steps leading down to the vault. But there are no steps and probably never were. The entrance to the vault is, and probably always was, walled up. There is not even a symbolic door. The commemorative inscriptions are on the marble monument under the canopy. At one stage Soane was considering an epitaph for the lintel of the proposed gateway and in March 1816 he wrote to his old friend Rowland Burdon of Castle Eden for advice. 31 His own suggestion was Vergil’s His saltem acoumulem donis et fungar inani munere (let me, at all events, pile up these funeral rites and perform vain offices). This had appeared on one of the Dulwich drawings and so may have been Mr Bourgeois’s suggestion. Burdon advised something less laconic, from Proverbs or Ecclesiasticus, but Soane’s choice seems to reflect all too sadly his sense that what he was doing was to erect a large and elaborate monument for no other purpose than to demonstrate his own grief and loneliness. In the end, the gateway was eliminated and, with it, the epitaph.
(12) Soane’s design for the interior, made in 1811. It was somewhat simplified in execution, as shown in 13. It was repaired with undeviating loyalty after the damage of 1944. The lighting is through yellow glass.
The memory-threads woven into this monument are many, 17. A sarcophagus in Montfaucon, 18, is one source.32 The convex monolith is, of course, the much enlarged lid of a Roman cinerary urn, with the characteristic cylindrical terminal. The monolith and its terminal are, at the same time, the ‘negative’ of a particular kind of Soane ceiling- the flat dome with a cylindrical lantern light- as seen in the breakfast-room at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The ‘pritnitive’ character of the canopy as a whole tempts one to see it as a masonry equivalent of the Abbe Laugier’s elemental wooden cabin. It has, however, been refined away from this by the panels and lightly etched capitals of the piers as well as by a serpent carved round the pinnacle and a serpentine line round the edge of the canopy; both, no doubt, intended as symbols of eternity. The white marble monument inside, a Pere Lachaise type, built round a solid inscription-bearing block, repeats in principle the form of the canopy, so that we have a canopy within a canopy, the lesser canopy more delicate and classical than the larger.
The whole could be interpreted perhaps as civilisation within eternity.33 The balustrades of the enclosure carry those scrolled acroteria we have met before. They seem oddly misplaced. The curious ‘drops’ on the dies can be traced to the Roman painted ornaments which Soane imitated at Pitzhanger. In combination with the mourning putti lodged in two of the dies they seem to have caught something of the strangeness of Michelangelo in the Lorenzian Chapel. The only totally conventional elements in the building are the balusters-all too probably ordered from a Coade stone catalogue. Soane’s obsession with the furniture of death may seem to have reached, in this deeply personal and intense creation, its ultimate phase. Perhaps it had. But it was not long before circumstances conspired to involve him in another commemorative enterprise, this time of a more public sort- the erection of the so-called Pitt cenotaph at the National Debt Redemption Office in Old Jewry, 19. In 1818 the Commissioners for the Redemption of the National Debt leased from the Bank of England a property on which to build their office, for which the architect was to be the Bank architect, Soane. It happened that at the same moment a committee appointed to erect a monument to William Pitt was considering where it should be placed and nothing seemed to them more appropriate than that it should be associated with that part of the nation’s administration of which he had been the greatest promoter. The Commissioners agreed and the Bank approved.34
Soane was therefore required to include in his plans for the building an appropriate place for the reception of a robed and enthroned figure of Pitt in bronze, the work of Richard Westmacott. Models and drawings in the museum show with what seriousness Soane took this memorial to a man who was not only the greatest political figure of his age but had been a patron and benefactor of himself. In April 1818 he submitted plans and they were accepted. The minutes of the Commissioners are terse and one wonders if they fully realised what Soane was giving them. This was, in effect, a Pitt shrine, consisting of a domed space, the dome opening upwards into a domed lantern with a ring of columns. There were recesses on three sides with the Westmacott figure in the recess facing the public hall, into which the fourth side opened. It was all much in the spirit of the two Desenfansf Bourgeois mausolea and is related also to Soane’s ‘tribunes’ at Tyringham and elsewhere. There were no corpses so Soane called the structure a ‘cenotaph’, thus conveying the idea of a symbolic tomb-house. In an early design he shows cinerary urns, lodged on shelves in the lateral recesses, as if for a whole family of Pitts. These vanished, however, to be replaced by two hollow, vertical three-sided objects with urn-like tops, not unlike the Reading obelisk in miniature, marking the entrance to the shrine.
The purpose of these is not very clear. Models for them, in the Soane Museum, are described in the inventory as ‘pedestals’. But they support nothing.35 They must be read, presumably as commemorative obelisks. But why two? The cenotaph took up a quite disproportionate amount of the site area and vanished, along with the office, in about 1900. The Westmacott statue survived and may be seen today with its back to Alfred Waterhouse’s library at Pembroke College, Cambridge. At the time of the building of the Pitt cenotaph, Soane was buying very liberally for his museum: in 1818, casts and marbles from Robert Adam’s Collection, in 1821 the marbles collected by Heathcote Tatham for Henry Holland, in the same year an important Reynolds, and in 1823 Hogarth’s Election cycle. In 1824 came the opportunity to eclipse all these by the purchase of the rarest and most spectacular piece of all- the Belzoni sarcophagus, 20.
(14) The tomb of Philip James De Loutherbourg RA, in Chiswick churchyard, 1813. Compare the recessed ends with the false doorways at Dulwich (11).
(15) Early design for the monument over the Soane vault which was constructed immediately after Mrs Soane’s death in November 1815.
This fabulous work of funeral art, to be known in due course as the sarcophagus of Seti I, had been discovered by Giambattista Belzoni, under the patronage of the British Consul-General in Egypt, Henry Salt, in 1817. Salt had shipped it to England in 1821, where it was deposited in the British Museum, pending arrangements for its purchase by the government. As the price required by Salt was £2000 and the Museum trustees were disinclined to give even half that sum the arrangements, after more than two years of waiting and haggling, came to nothing. 36 In February 1824, Soane approached one of the trustees whom he knew well (his neighbour, Mr Tyndale) begging him to procure for him the reversion of the sarcophagus, should the government not purchase. The reversion was obtained and Soane paid £2000 to Salt’s agent. An opening was made in the back wall of the Museum to receive this monster coffin which was lowered into the crypt on 12 May. It was the. most costly acquisition Soane had ever made.
The space in the crypt under the dome was, of course, the only place in the Museum where the sarcophagus could possibly go and its eligibility for this position must have gone far in recommending its purchase. ‘Catacombs’ and a ‘mausoleum’ had been in Soane’s mind when he planned this area and here was a justification of such themes ampler than he could have imagined. Nevertheless, in a curiously oblique way, it had been imagined for him. Some nine years earlier, his eccentric perspectivist, Joseph Gandy, an artist no less concerned than Soane with funerary themes, had offered him as a gift a fantastically elaborate drawing he had made called ‘The Tomb of Merlin’, 21.37 It showed the magician’s sarcophagus in a crypt, clustered with bizarre monuments, a pale glow emanating from the translucent sarcophagus itself. Soane either did not accept the gift or passed the drawing on to his friend Westmacott. But when, at a reception he gave in 1825, he placed lamps inside the Belzoni sarcophagus to display its translucency and sent out invitations ‘to see the sarcophagus by lamp-light’, he must surely have reflected on the uncanny prescience of Gandy’s proffered gift.
(16) One of many projects for the Soane monument in the burial ground at St Giles- in-the-Fields (now St Pancras Gardens). Drawing by J. M. Gandy, 1816.
(17) The Soane monument in St Pancras Gardens. An iron gate admits to a sunk area and the walled-up entry to the vault.
The acquisition of the sarcophagus was Soane’s greatest triumph as a collector. It must amply have satisfied his vanity. Its extreme (though then still unascertained) antiquity extended his romantic experience of the archaic. But there is perhaps more to it. In making an empty tomb the centre-piece of his domestic museum, Soane was creating what would inevitably be seen as· a monument to himself. It was already a monument to its discoverer, Belzoni, and remained so until Egyptologists gave a more prominent role to the Pharaoh, Seti I, for whom the sarcophagus had been made. But if it was ‘the Belzoni sarcophagus’ it was also, by virtue of its architectural enthronement in the museum, very much the Soane sarcophagus- almost, indeed, a Soane cenotaph. I am not suggesting that any ideas of this sort passed through Soane’s mind. But in relation to the chain of circumstances which I have recited the installation of the sarcophagus becomes an act of some biographical and psychological significance. It was now 47 years since the drowning of James King had set off the series of designs for ideal mausolea. The rooms at Pitzhanger followed; then the crypt and catacombs at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and, at the same time, involvement in the burial enterprises of Sir Francis Bourgeois; then Mrs Soane’s tomb; then the Pitt cenotaph and, finally, the acquisition of the Belzoni sarcophagus.
I say ‘finally’ because the occasion seems climactic. But it is not quite the end of the tale. In the same year, or very soon afterwards, another place of burial appeared at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields-the tomb of the ‘monk’. In 1824, Soane bought No 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and rebuilt it as an independent dwelling-house for leasing. He used the site of the stable at the rear, however, to extend his galleries. The extension comprised a top-lit picture-room on the ground floor and below, at crypt level, a low-ceilinged room which was to become the ‘Monk’s Parlour’. A space between this and the rear of the new house became the ‘Monk’s Yard’. In this yard Soane built two arches made up of Gothic stonework from Westminster and called it the monk’s ‘cloister’. Finally, beneath the window of the parlour he assembled a variety of odd fragments to form the monk’s ‘tomb’.
(18) T Roman sarcophagus illustrated in B. de Montfaucon’s ‘L’Antiquite Expliquee’, which is in the Soane library.
(19) Sectional perspective of a proposal for the Pitt cenotaph in the National Debt Redemption Office, Old Jewry, 1818.
Who was the monk? Soane, in his Description of the museum, calls him ‘Padre Giovanni’-Father John. Who was this ‘Father John’? Was he John Soane? Not quite. A passage in the Description contributed by Mrs Barbara Hofland seems to show that the monk was a fanciful proto-Soane who had lived and suffered in a vaguely remote dark age. In creating him Soane was, I am afraid, being coyly humorous. He quotes Horace’s Dulce est desipere in loco -it is pleasant to be nonsensical in due place. In the Monk’s Parlour and its adjuncts, including the tomb, Soane was being nonsensical. He had done something of the sort at Pitzhanger, with a ‘monk’s dining-room’ in the basement, vestiges of which survive. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, things were more elaborate but equally nonsensical. We must not make the mistake of seeing the Monk’s Parlour as a serious attempt at antiquarianism. It is made up almost entirely of old and modern junk. It is a parody of the Fonthill vision and it mocks the earnest kind of antiquarian studies which, in 1824, were making serious advances.
So what of the monk’s tomb? To build, at the age of 71, out of junk, a pretence tomb for a likeness of oneself in one’s own back yard may seem to us a rather dreary kind of joke a kind of self-mockery. Nor is it much enlivened by the actual burial there of a pet dog and the addition to the head-stone of the inscription ‘Alas! poor Fanny’, 22. It all sounds a bit silly; and, as described in the sentimental and platitudinous prose of Mrs Hofland, which Soane must, I suppose, have approved, the silliness plunges to bathos. The nonsense about the monk, and the monk’s tomb, does perhaps shed some light on the whole question of Soane’s concern with the furniture of death. It was not all nonsense but it was a sort of play-acting - self-dramatisation. The only episode where a tomb involved him emotionally was the designing of the monument at St Pancras, after his wife’s death; and the Virgilian inscription he proposed for it was a confession of the ultimate meaninglessness of funeral gear. On other occasions, the theme of death gratified him as an architect, an antiquary or a collector. The display of urns and sarcophagi and the designing of mausolea were part of Soane’s projection of himself as the great scholar-architect, the earnest preserver of the antique or, as in the monk’s tomb, the fanciful parodist of a fashion he despised.
(20) The ‘Belzoni Saroophagus’, otherwise the saroophagus of the Pharaoh Seti I, discovered by Belzoni in 1817 and installed in the Soane Museum in 1824.
(21) ‘The Tomb of Merlin’, by J. M. Gandy, shown at the RA in 1815. Gandy offered it to Soane ’as a mark of my esteem and gratitude!. It is now in the RIBA.
After the installation of the sarcophagus and the creation of the monk’s apartments, Soane lived on for another 13 years, nine of them as a distinguished public architect, engaged on the new Law-courts at Westminster Hall and a new State Paper Office. His very last exercise in funeral composition was a gratuitous suggestion for a ‘sepulchral church and military chapel’ to be erected in St James’s Park for the Duke of York who died in 1827. The designs are of no great interest, one being merely an elaboration of the design for a church at Tyringham, made some 25 years earlier.
Soane was knighted in 1831. In 1833 he obtained the Act of Parliament under which the Museum and its contents were to be vested in trustees after his death and preserved for ever from alteration or rearrangement in consideration of an endowment left by him. In 1835, a committee representing the architectural profession met at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to present him with a laudatory address and a gold medal. On 20 January 1837, Sir John Soane died and, at mid-day on 26 January, the remains were deposited beside those of his wife and son under the monument at St Pancras. The funeral was ‘strictly private’.
(22) The ‘Monk’s Tomb’ in the ‘Monk’s Yard’ at Sir John Soane’s Museum, constructed in 1824. Its only occupant is Fanny, a pet dog.
1 (J. Soane), Memoirs of the Professional Life of an Architect (1835), pp13-14. A. T. Bolton, The Portrait of Sir John Soane, p4.
2 Plates xxxviii and xxxix. Preliminary sketches for the design are in the Soane album labelled ‘Original Sketches’ (Soane case C). Among finished drawings in the Museum there are only plans (xlv, 1(16)).
3 J. Harris, Sir William Chambers (1970), pp24-25; pis 4, 6, 7, fig 1.
4 Soane drawings, xlv, 1 (19).
5 Probably No 98, Picture Room Recess, Soane Museum.
6 Soane drawings, lxiii, 6.
7 This type of ceiling had been anticipated by George Dance II at Cranbury Park, Hants. D. Stroud, George Dance (1971), pis 24 and 25, where a derivative from Pietro Santo Bartoli, Gli Antichi Sepolchri (1699 and 1768) is suggested.
8 That the design of this gateway specially intrigued Soane is shown by the number of variations in Soane drawings, xxxii, 1.
9 J. Soane, Sketches in Architecture (1793), pis 2-10.
10 Engravings of wall decorations at the Villa Negroni. A set of eight hangs in the Breakfast Room at the Soane Museum, but all have been trimmed for framing. The Museum has untrimmed proofs of Nos 1, 2, 4 and8 (two of each). Nos 1 and 2 are signed by Angelo Campanella after R. Mengs; Nos 4 and 8 by the same after A. Maron. They are dated between 1778 and 1786.
11 Marked sale catalogues are in the Soane Museum Library.
12 A. T. Bolton, The Works of Sir John Soane (1924), pxxx. J. Wilton-Ely, ‘The Architectural Models of Sir John Soane’, Architectural History, xii (1969), p37.
13 Soane drawings, Jxiii, 6 (23-48). J. Wilton-Ely, op cit, p37, fig 18c (the caption is misplaced).
14 The main sources for the history of the Dnlwich art gallery and mausoleum are: Memoirs of the late Noel Desenfans Esq containing also, a plan for preserving the portraits of Distinguished Characters etc. (1810); E. Cook, Catalogue of the Pictures in the Gallery of Alleyn’ s College … Dulwich (1914); articles on N. Desenfans and F. Bourgeois inDNB.
15 PRO, PROB 11/1465.
17 Soane drawings, xlvii, 3. Bolton, Works, ut supra, p21.
18 Soane drawings, Jxvii, 6 (15).
19 Desenfans’s will, ut supra.
20 Cook, Catalogue, ut supra.
21 PRO, PROB 11/1559.
22 The design passed through many stages as is shown in Soane drawings xv, 1 and 2 and lxv, 4 and 5.
23 Sir J. Soane, Lectures on Architecture, ed A. T. Bolton (1929), p126.
24 Soane drawings, xxxii, 2A.
25 Soane drawings, xxxii, 3 (48).
26 Bolton, Portrait, ut supra, pp179-180.
27 Soane drawings, lxiii, 6 (5-9). The monument and its iron enclosure were restored in 1925 by a group of architects Jed by Maurice B. Adams and W. R. Lethaby. The ironwork has mostly vanished, presumably taken for ‘salvage’ in the Second World War. but a fragment remains. A drawing by Raffies Davison of the monument as restored is in Builder, 1926, p686.
28 Soane drawings, lxiii, 7 (2).
29 Soane drawings, lxiii, 7 (26).
30 Soane drawings, xlv, 4.
31 Bolton, Portrait, ut supra, pp218-219. The quotation which follows is from Vergil, Aeneid, vi, II. 885-688.
32 B. de Montfaucon, L’Antiquite Expliquee, V, pt 1, pl 122.
33 J. Summerson, ‘Le Tombeau de Sir John Soane’, Revue de l’Art, XXX (1976), pp51-54.
34 A Summary of the Minutes of the Commissioners for the National Debt (HMSO, 1961), M 172-173.
35 Soane drawings, xlviii, 1. J. Wilton-Ely, op cit, pp26-29 figs 17a, b, c and d, 18a and band 21d (caption misplaced).
36 S. Mayer. The Great Belzoni (1959). Bolton, Portrait, ut supra, pp311-312.
37 J. Summerson, ’Gandy and the Tomb of Merlin’, AR, April 1941.