This month [September 2013] Sir John Soane’s Museum celebrated the architect’s 260th birthday on September 10.
The architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), best known for the house-museum he built for his collections at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields which still welcomes visitors today, was also an avid book collector whose library of some 7,000 volumes is still preserved in the Museum along with 30,000 architectural drawings and many important works of art and antiquities. His Library is a unique survival as the only known professional library of a practicing architect of the early nineteenth century and as a gentleman’s town library of the period. Even more unusual is the survival of documentation in his personal and professional archive enabling the identification of the processes by which he acquired many of the books. Just under half of the books in the Library are works on art and architecture, but also included are travel books, reference works, literature (including the first four folios of Shakespeare) novels, poetry, classics, religion, politics, cookery, 4 incunabula and 11 illuminated manuscripts. Like the rest of the Museum it is a closed collection, which has not been added to since his death.
Born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer in Reading, Soane (knighted in 1831 at the end of a long career) was largely an autodidact, a self-made man who did not inherit a family library and whose books at Lincoln’s Inn Fields represent the collecting activity of one man. Professional success and marriage to the heiress of a wealthy builder enabled Soane in 1792 to buy the first of three terrace houses on Lincoln’s Inn Fields and rebuild it as a home for his growing family and architectural office. In 1800 he also bought a country house, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, with the intention of creating an artistic environment to educate his sons as architects. It is for Pitzhanger that he made most of his major early purchases of art; he also began buying books at a phenomenal rate, creating a second, gentleman’s country house library of poetry, plays, encyclopedias and runs of journals. His book buying was further stimulated by his appointment in 1806 as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, when he began to arrange his books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them, buying the freehold of the house next door at no.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields to make room for new acquisitions in the former outbuildings at the back.
Neither of Soane’s sons showed any inclination or aptitude for architecture, and in July 1810 Soane sold Pitzhanger, bringing his collections to London and amalgamating the two libraries. In 1812 he arranged to swap houses with his tenant at No.13 (a substantially larger house) and rebuilt it creating a combined library dining room on the ground floor with walls lined with glazed bookcases and mirrors, and gradually cramming additional bookcases in virtually every room and passage: at the time of his death books were stored in 124 bookcases and cupboards all over the house (including the front hall) and in piles on tables in at least three rooms. Soane’s younger son George’s tempestuous relations with his parents culminated in his publication of two spiteful anonymous articles in September 1815; the ensuing estrangement was followed by the premature death of Soane’s older son John junior in 1823. These private disappointments gradually led him to see his house and collections as his public legacy, and in 1833 he obtained a private Act of Parliament to maintain the Museum and its contents ‘as nearly as possible’ as they were left at the time of his death. This came into force on Soane’s death on 20 January 1837. In 1947, in response to the Museum’s precarious financial position, the trustees applied to the Treasury for grant-in-aid and in 1969 the Act was superseded by a new Scheme under which the Museum also reoccupied No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, creating a dedicated research room in the former drawing rooms of the house with a small working collection of reference books and information files, which was moved in 2008 to No.14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the house built by Soane at 14 LIF when he expanded the back of the museum in 1824, tenanted during his lifetime and sold after his death. A comprehensive conservation survey has recently been completed and the online catalogue of the Library to modern bibliographic standards is nearing completion.