There is one museum in London that I do not want to call a museum because in some ways it is so unlike one. Very few people ever go there. It is like the palace of the Sleeping Beauty. If you shut your eyes at the south-west corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and try not to notice the tentacular Lyons that unblushingly intrudes its smug modern shopfront into this old-world square, but stroll through the gardens to the north side, you will see the Soane Museum at No. 13. This is one of the most curious and neglected corners I have found in London. There are priceless things here like Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, but for every hundred visitors who go to the National Gallery of British Art to see the Marriage d la Mode only one comes to this quaint caravanserai of all sorts of objects.
Sir John Soane must surely have been the most agreeable bricklayer’s son who ever made his fortune as a great architect and had a pretty taste in art. You have only to look at his portrait by Lawrence, one of the last that great painter finished, to see what a kindly, benevolent man he was. Why, oh why, did he exact that his collection should remain unaltered! I know that the guide-books all extol the ingenuity with which so many things have been fitted into a small space, but if only one could sweep away the superfluous and unnecessary and rearrange the house like a perfect specimen of a home of the period, with the great pictures hung to the best advantage in the largest rooms and the basement reserved for the sarcophagus in its present place, with the best of the larger treasures that would be incongruous in the upper rooms ! As it is, you must diligently hunt for what you want to see, for the delightful catalogue is more useful as a souvenir than a present help in finding anything.
There are things of human interest, like the watch Queen Anne gave to Sir Christopher Wren, or the pistol that Peter the Great collared from a Turkish Bey in 1696, that Alexander I. gave to Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807, and that Sir John Soane provokingly says he purchased under very peculiar circumstances-or the flamboyant jewel of Charles I. found among the royal baggage after the battle of Naseby-or Rousseau’s autograph letter-or those exquisite old books of Hours richly illuminated and written with such patient skill by some old Flemish monk five hundred years ago.
But the jewels of this unnoticed casket are the pictures. The courteous guardians, who all look like retired librarians, show with a certain melancholy pride the way to the tiny room where hang Turner’s fine painting of Van Tyomp’s Bayge and two of his water-colours, Watteau’s Les Noces, and the greatest treasures of the whole collection, Hogarth’s pictures of The Rake’s Progress and the four big canvases of The Election.
Besides all this there are wonderful Flemish wood carvings and manuscripts, and, in the crypt, the interesting three-thousand-year-old tomb of Seti L, King of Egypt, whose inscriptions Sir John did not live to see deciphered.
There was an air of wistfulness about the place. It had been arranged with so much loving care, and so few people profit by it though the reward of going is great.
Perhaps Sir John Soane did not want anybody but art-lovers to see his collection, or he would surely not have closed it to the public on Saturday, Sunday and Monday all the year round and for the entire months of September, December, January and February. It is true that students and other visitors may apply to the curator for admission at other times, and foreigners are admitted on presentation of their visiting card on any day except Sunday and Bank Holidays, but what Londoner, with richer collections open every day in the week, could be expected to remember the capriciousness of the guardians of Sir John Soane’s treasures, who are like the suburban hostess announcing her reception days as first and third Tuesdays and fifth Friday? In despair of remembering when the good lady was at home, you would never call on her. No, if you want to see the Hogarths, my advice is to wrap yourself in the cloak of a foreigner and present your card at the door of this neglected London museum between the hours of ten and five.