Nairn’s London #8
THEN: Extreme greatness in art has two faces. One takes the usage of the time and transfigures it with humanity and intensity. The other leaps forward not only in style, but into what appears to be a higher organisation of humanity altogether. Rubens v. Rembrandt, Handel v. Bach – and Wren v. Soane. The Soane Museum is as deep as St Paul’s dome is wide; an experience to be had in London and nowhere else, worth travelling across a continent to see in the same way as the Sistine Chapel or the Isenheim altarpiece. Soane as a man was proud and cantankerous, but his architectural imagination was superhuman or saintly. The museum was his house, and he altered it to contain his collections in a series of meditations on space which go as deep as any more orthodox mystical experience. After a visit here, four walls and a ceiling can never look quite the same. The outside is idiosyncratic enough, but like many of Soane’s buildings is no more than the fly-leaf of the book. Inside you get every trick of mirrors, proportion and shock juxtaposition of scale; but it is not thrown at you, never done primarily for illusionistic effect, always a by-product of an ever deeper burrowing into the nature of space – Soane splitting the spatial atom – and also into the personality of space. Soane was after what he called ‘the poetry of architecture’, and so his rooms are never just exercises. His library on the ground floor with its hanging ceiling is a ‘mood’ room, meant to be lived in; the stylised details, which are certainly odd, are quite subservient to this. Shane’s imitators could only copy the details; the only true match is in Nash’s interiors for the Brighton Pavilion. (As might be imagined, Soane hated Nash and Nash held Soane in amused contempt.) His imagination was always truly original, rather than conventionally original: half way up the stairs there is a recess devoted to shakespeare. It has plaster cherubs on the ceiling, arranged neither with symmetry nor with artful asymmetry. They just seem to have arrived at random – literally flown in from the treetops outside; and so you can believe in them. Because of this, the crustiest of Soane’s archaeological confrontations seem credible, and his Monk’s Parlour has the authentic frisson that Fuseli could only grope for. And along with all the plaster casts and weather fragments from the Palace of Westminster, there are two of Hogarth’s best known moral sequences: The Rake’s Progress and The Election.
All these are really sidelines to Soane’s primary purpose, the metaphysical inner exploration of space which had to wait a century and a half for its physical counterpart, astronautics. On the first floor there are twin drawing-rooms, sober and spacious and at all times suitable for their worldly purpose (Soane here was several up on most mystics.) The front room has a flat ceiling with panels cut in it, into which separate little segmental roofs have been fitted. Easy; yet somehow the whole business of what ceilings are for has been looked at afresh. In the back room the roles are reversed; a big segmental ceiling contains a coffered central square recess. The drawing-room talk is not self-consciously different, but not quite the same either.
And God knows what the breakfasts must have been like. The Breakfast Room is downstairs, behind the staircase. One of Soane’s hanging ceilings fits over it (and over you) like a floppy hat, elegantly top lit. But it is embroidered with tiny convex mirrors which show up the room with you in it, in miniature – a microcosm. On two sides of the ceiling, great bleary light comes streaming down from inside – macrocosm. The third side is a bookcase (inner life), the fourth side is the outside world (outer life). It is all the bathroom mirrors anybody ever looked into rolled into one. And it is also probably the deepest penetration of space and of man’s position in space, and hence in the world, that any architect has ever created. You might infer the second part from Soane’s other buildings, but the first part, the human understanding of the nature of eating breakfast, can only be caught here. If man does not blow himself up, he might in the end act at all times and on all levels with the complete understanding of this room.
NOW: Nairn devoted a hefty two pages to Soane’s museum. And its clear to see why. The house is magnificent; an abode to be jealous of. I’m not going to attempt to match his word count. As ever, he has managed to sum up the emotion of the space perfectly. And the Soane Museum trust have done such a fantastic job of preserving the space, that everything Nairn wrote back then still holds true. The stair recess devoted to Shakespeare is an interesting feature. It was interesting to read how the architects of Soane’s day drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s first folio; its little wonder he set up a shrine in a place he’d pass daily. The amount of natural light that gets to all rooms is a wonder to behold. The breakfast room is the real triumph here; a light and airy space in which you long to sit down in, with a dippy egg and the weekend papers.