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Medusa gazes down from a fictive sky ceiling, a bronzed lion mask snarls from a boss on the wall, blood red walls and a staircase painted to resemble sooty masonry evoke the buried classical city of Pompeii – and it’s all in central London.
This summer Sir John Soane’s Museum unveils the first phase of its £7 million restoration project – No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2 – the house next door to Sir John Soane’s incredible Museum, restored to its former glory as much-needed facilities for the Museum’s yearly intake of 110,000 visitors.
Phase 1 of Opening up the Soane reveals a new Soane-designed house, built and decorated by John and Eliza Soane for their own use in 1792. Languishing unseen until now, No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is an elegant, neoclassical townhouse, with its astonishingly elaborate decorations reinstated for the first time for 200 years.
Look out for Soane’s lofty ‘geometric’ staircase, carefully restored with the walls painted to resemble the sooty masonry of a Roman catacomb, two Pompeian-red rooms, one with a ceiling painted like a cloudy sky, and the Soanes’ famous Breakfast Parlour, with its vault painted as a fictive vine trellis by John Crace, the artist who decorated the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Expertly restored for the museum by Julian Harrap Architects, No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a major addition to London’s most idiosyncratic and best-loved historic-house museum.
Sir John Soane’s famous Museum next door is left exactly as it was, glittering and atmospheric, with all its astounding treasures. The restored spaces in No.12 enable the Museum to move the Shop and Cloakroom out of the Museum, establishing them in a stylish new setting ingeniously devised by JHA amidst the restored Regency splendour of the Soanes’ first home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, visitors can buy a wide range of stylish Soane-related merchandise, while improved circulation routes reduce the wear and tear on Soane’s fragile Museum.
Upstairs in No.12, there is also a sleek, new Gallery for temporary exhibitions, designed by Caruso St John in a Soanean livery of mahogany and mirror, enabling the Museum to share its hidden treasures with the public. Exhibits include some 30,000 architectural drawings by Sir John Soane, Robert and James Adam, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Sir William Chambers and other masters. There is a lively programme of loan exhibitions about architecture, art and design – historic and contemporary.
The new cases have been designed by Caruso St John Architects and built, along with the furniture for the new shop, by Goppion SpA in Milan. They use the latest lighting and environmental technologies to display and protect sensitive works of art. The cases, built using sustainable materials, are inspired by the Sir John Soane’s architecture and the furniture he designed for his incomparable Museum.
The new Soane Gallery opens on 6 July with Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture – Sir John Soane’s Museum’s contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad – exploring the great circuses and stadia for sporting events, from Olympia in Greece, and the Coliseum in Rome, to the London Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Behind the scenes in No.12, new, specially-equipped, Conservation Studios will enable the Soane’s conservators to continue to protect and preserve Soane’s amazing collections for generations to come, while a small, sensitively-installed lift will greatly improve disabled access to the Museum.
The opening of No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields is just part of the Opening up the Soane project. In November 2012, the restored Shakespeare and Tivoli Recesses will open off the main Staircase of the Museum, and Sir John Soane’s private apartments on the second floor of the Museum will be restored and opened in 2013–15.