Tuesday 30 May 2023

Occult London: Sir John Soane's Museum

If you're in London and like things weird, creepy and a bit occult, then do visit Sir John Soane's Museum. It's deeply strange and utterly worth seeing. During his life, from 1753 to 1837, the famous architect crammed his home with works of art, books, sculptures, and historic objects. 

He bought three houses and a stables on the edge of Lincoln's Inn Fields, knocking them together and redesigning the interiors so he could cram his collection into every possible space to turn it into a museum as well as a home. The upper floors were rooms to live in, but the lower area is a maze of corridors filled with ancient and medieval architecture as well as statues and sculptures of mythological beings and funereal objects including the huge Sarcophagus of Seti I of Egypt (pictured below left). 

Reached by descending spiral stairs, and mainly lit from windows in the roof, visitors might feel as though they are descending into the Underworld and quite possibly need to pass some initiatory test to find their way out again. Or you could ask the help of a friendly guide, as each room of the museum has a knowledgeable attendant who can tell you about the displays as well as point you in the right direction to leave.

I now have to admit that despite living in London pretty much all my life, I only went there for the first time last week. I'd heard about the place and been told it was worth visiting, but I honestly had no idea just how fascinationg the whole experience would be. 

If you're wondering why I've put this post under the Occult London label, I'll explain. For a start the museum has a lot of art depicting Pagan gods and goddesses and so on, but there is more to it. The huge collection of books Sir John Soane collected include occult tomes, including an early edtion of A System of Magick by Daniel Defoe, from 1728. But it goes further.

Sir John Soane considered himself a man of the Enlightenment. He didn't go along with organised Christianity. However, the death of his wife deeply affected him and his continued grief affected his outlook on life and, possibly, what might come after. He designed a tomb for her in the grounds of St Pancras Old Church, which became the family mausoleum. It doesn't contain any overt Christian iconography, but the roof has a pine cone finial which is a symbol for regeneration. Below that is a ouroboros - a serpent swallowing its tail - symbolising eternity.

His art collection contains a painting of Sir John Soane in Masonic robes. He was an active member of the Freemasons after being initiated on 1 December 1813. He famously designed both a Masonic ark and great hall for the organisation's London headquarters. According to the scholarly paper, "Freemasonry and Sir John Soane" by David Watkin, Soane regarded Freemasonry as the religion of the Enlightenment. He believed in a divine power as the architect of the universe, but not in a Christian-style God who constantly meddled in human affairs. Soane's architecture often includes Masonic symbols.

Soane established his  museum by a Private Act of Parliament in 1833, which took effect when he died in 1837. This Act meant it had to be kept as it was "as nearly as possible". The rather sad reason that he did this was to disinherit his son, with whom he had a long and bitter feud. The Act does, however, mean this wonderful house and collection exist today and can be visited by the public free of charge. As a final note, Sir John Soane also designed Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is close to where I live in south east London. 

Sir John Soane's Museum is at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP. Here's the web address: https://www.soane.org/

The photos are ones I took at the museum

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Jane M said...

Thanks for this, Lucya. Looks like a perfect day out for me and Keith. Holborn's easy to get to, then pop in the Shakespeare's Head for lunch, then on to the museum. Looking forward to it.

Badwitch said...

Hope you enjoy it, Jane!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. I’m planning a day out in London this month so will certainly visit the museum, also British Museum (Hathor Mirror), Treadwells and Atlantis bookshops.