John Soane’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Reflections on an Architect and His Collection by Bruce Boucher - review by Gillian Darley

Gillian Darley

No Ordinary Museum

John Soane’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Reflections on an Architect and His Collection


Yale University Press 224pp £35

There is, it seems, no end to our fascination with the palace of treasures that Sir John Soane left to the nation in his own memory. Sir Christopher Wren’s memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral famously proclaims Si monumentum requiris circumspice (‘If you seek his monument look around you’). By sealing his house and collections by Act of Parliament in 1833, Soane, the self-made architect of the Bank of England, hoped to ensure that he would be similarly honoured. His wish was that visitors to the house, whether student architects or knowledgeable members of the public, would leave better informed than when they had arrived. While viewing the objects in the library, visitors fall under the eye of their owner, who watches from a handsome portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. 

Recently retired after almost eight years as director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, Bruce Boucher has carefully unpacked the principal elements of this most extraordinary of house-museums and arranged them in compartments, as in a cabinet of curiosities. His purpose is to examine what motivated Soane as a collector. It is a fruitful exercise and it is well done, with due credit given to two key colleagues, Helen Dorey and Susan Palmer, both of whom have published extensively on Soane’s life, work and possessions. 

The collections that Boucher discusses in this book stand witness to Soane’s hard-won erudition, refined eye, impeccable taste and place at the heart of cultural London. The house-museum, overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is essentially Soane’s autobiography, a place where the personality of the man is unavoidable. Nothing found a

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter