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    Entertaining Mr. Soane
by Stanley Abercrombie
 
     
 
C. W. Hunneman
Portrait of John Soane
1776
(detail)
 
Interior of Soane's Council Chamber of Freemason's Hall, drawn by J. M. Gandy, 1828
 
Aerial cutaway view of Soane's Bank of England, drawn by J. M. Gandy, 1830
 
John Soane
Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Sir John Soane Museum)
 
Soane's design for an Entrance to Downing Street, drawn by J. M. Gandy, 1826
 
"Sir John Soane: Architect -- Master of Space and Light, " Sept. 11-Dec. 3, 1999, at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) is one of architecture's great originals. Soane, like most of his contemporaries, could be labeled a neoclassicist, but that is as misleading as locking in Antonio GaudÝ with Art Nouveau or Francesco Borromini with the Baroque. In such cases, personal idiosyncrasies far outweigh any attempt at categorization.

Neoclassicism aimed to revive the "noble simplicity and tranquil greatness" that art historian Johann Winckelmann considered the outstanding qualities of classical design. Using that basic vocabulary, Soane produced buildings and interiors that were neither simple nor tranquil. Instead, his designs are highly complex, picturesque and fascinatingly ingenious, particularly in their filtering of daylight through oculi and around domed shells. Philip Johnson, who was one of the first of the present-day Soane enthusiasts and who admits in a catalogue essay to having "copied Soane's Breakfast Room twice, " has called him a "ceiling architect."

Soane's masterwork was the series of complex interior spaces, all now destroyed, for London's Bank of England, a project that occupied Soane almost 50 years, from age 35 to his death. But surviving interiors on a smaller scale can be seen in Soane's own house at Lincoln's Inn Fields, bequeathed to Great Britain and now open to the public as the Sir John Soane Museum. Here are some of the architect's most eccentric effects like tricky uses of mirrors and art displays that rotate like the leaves of a book.

Also on view is his impressive collections of antique fragments (including a pilaster capital from the Roman Pantheon and an Egyptian sarcophagus) and of drawings and paintings (his own architectural drawings as well as works by everyone from Joseph Michael Gandy and Christopher Wren to Sir Joshua Reynolds and Canaletto). Important, too, were his designs for the Dulwich College Picture Gallery, for two country houses, Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire and Pitshanger Manor in Middlesex and for the Law Courts at Westminster.

The present exhibition, designed by Piers Gough, is a multimedia extravaganza. It presents Soane's work through his own drawings, through dozens of architectural models in cork and wood, through a film by Murray Grigor, through a computerized walk through the Bank of England and through a reconstruction -- at seven-tenths full scale -- of one of the bank's domed interiors. After London, the show travels to the Centro Palladio in Vicenza, where it opens in March 2000, and then in July 2000 to the MusÚe des Monuments Franšais in Paris' Palais de Chaillot.

The exhibition is supplemented by a catalogue, and the architect's new popularity is also served by two new books: Ptolemy Dean's Sir John Soane and the Country Estate (Ashgate) and Gillian Darley's John Soane, An Accidental Romantic (Yale University Press).


STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.

 
 
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