Monday, September 27, 2010

London Trip ... Part Three

This is my final installment in my Trip to London series. Part ONE and Part TWO are found here.

Sir John Soane's Museum

Sir John Soane used his entire London townhouse like an advertisement for his architectural business (which he ran out of his home) as well as a showcase for his myriad collections of Greek, Roman, and Chinese ceramics, paintings, woodwork, etc. He was an early adopter of gas lighting inside the house (1824) for the same reason. He put together vellum bound copies of all his ideas, designs, and projects as a marketing tool for new clients stopping by. He also made extensive use of Picture Planes— multiple panels of framed ideas that either he or his assistants drew and painted that could be opened and blended in seamlessly into the wall when closed. Soane was known for his use of lights and spaces. Colored glass and mirrors, all angled and/or curved, is how he manipulated the light and space of a room. Soane also believed in curvaceous didactic architectural details that are natural as opposed to geometric lines that are man-made. He did bow to his clients' demand for Gothic and Palladian features, which were in fashion then.

Soane was lucky that his wife came into some money fairly early in his career, so he was able to buy into the Lincoln Fields terrace houses (two side-by-sides made into one). This edge of Grosvenor Square was like an architectural and artistic ghetto. Architect Robert Adam, painters Turner and Jackson, and Shakespearean actor Garrick were Soane's contemporaries. Garrick and Soane shared their love for Hogarth and Shakespearean folios. Soane was very fond of John Robbins's Regency furniture. Hogarth's Rake's Progress is a series of paintings that depict the wheel of fortune turning in a gentleman's life. Hogarth painted these not for money but for social commentary. (Asides: Turner's yellow color is a non-hierarchical color and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson was Garrick's teacher.)

Soane was very proud of his Seti I's sarcophagus that he acquired from Belzoni in 1817. (Yes, one of the myriad Egyptian treasures Belzoni stole from the Valley of the Kings he excavated.) The British Museum dithered over the price of 20,000 pounds, which Soane promptly paid. He then held a three-day open house. The sarcophagus was lit from within and outside with specially commissioned lamps. All of London came to gawk, including Prinny.

Soane's townhouse is the norm for London town homes: steps leading up to a polished door with brass fittings and knocker. A narrow entry way and hallway lead to a long rectangular library on the right and stairs to the kitchen downstairs and to the upstairs bedrooms on the left. The library was the most spectacular of all his rooms, since this was also the room he received his clients in. Most of his portable treasures are displayed in the room. The ceiling is painted, paneled, with extensive mouldings and finials and also features paintings.

One narrow door leads to the breakfast parlor in the back. Another even narrower door leads to his small study that leads into his dressing room (so if a client showed up while was working, he could be appropriately coated and bewigged. This leads further back into his atelier, which also has a back entrance so all this staff could quietly come to work without disturbing the household.

Upstairs, he had an informal ante-drawing room that led to the main formal drawing room, with tall Georgian windows, expensive silk wall coverings, mouldings, the requisite pianoforte, and graceful Regency furniture (read: curvy). (The ottoman was particularly funky: rectangular with a top that dipped and curved up, so one end was higher than the other, supported by two short legs and two long ones.)

British Library

We saw the Magnificent Maps exhibit (temporary) and the manuscripts room (permanent). Handwritten manuscripts from 500, 1000, 1500 years ago. Yes, my breath stopped time and time again in my throat as I toured the manuscripts room.

"Reader — I married him." So begins the concluding chapter of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë in her own hand. Jane Austen's notebook and actual writing lap desk (yes!) was a few cases down the row. Personal opinion: Jane had better handwriting than Charlotte. Wordsworth's was execrable. Milton's was rather odd; it changed radically even across two facing pages, and especially when he changed languages. Darwin loved white space—between words and between lines, too. Freud hated it—yes, amateur psychoanalysis labels him anal-retentive if judging by his handwriting. Oscar Wilde used horizontal curvy lines as strikethroughs instead of the standard straight lines.

Thomas Hardy was distressed when his critics in 1890s called his book Tess of the d'Urbervilles "a mere story of adultery." A hundred and twenty years later, reception for romance novels hasn't changed much, has it?

On July 10, 1843, Ada Lovelace wrote a letter to Charles Babbage that set down on paper the first principle of a computer program that was a group of calculations solely by machine.

Whoever wrote Beowulf had gorgeous writing. Eleven hundred years old. I wanted to cry as stared at it.

I was less teary-eyed but nevertheless touched as I looked upon Cuthbert's Gospel of John from the late seventh century (it was discovered in his coffin); the Codex Alexandrinus, the earliest whole bible in Greek, from the fourth century; the Golden Haggadah; and the Mamluk Qur’an.

There they were in all their glory: the Magna Carta, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the first printed Gutenberg Bible, and a personal prayer roll (rolled parchment, not in book format) with illustrations and fancy lettering.

The biggest disappointing part was the absence of the Lindisfarne Gospels; they were off being restored. The best surprises were two Persian manuscripts in the medieval Pahlavi language. The fourteenth century Shahanshahnama by Ahmad Tabrizi from Shiraz in southern Iran was the most beautiful illuminated manuscript in the entire room; it's an account in verse of Genghis Khan's conquest of Baghdad. The second surprise was the 1610 Persian court translation of the Panchantantra Tales from Sanskrit to Pahlavi, illustrated in the Mughal style at the court of Prince Salim (who later became Emperor Jahangir of the Taj Mahal fame) in Allahabad, India.

Musical manuscripts also formed a part of the collection. The Anglo-Saxon Neumes are graphic signs showing the direction of the melody and the details of the music, but not the precise pitch since they lacked staffs and measures. The Caligula Troper was written during the Norman Conquest and is a bound, illustrated book with alternating lines of notes with lines of words. Beautifully illustrated with color, it features colophons for the first letter of the first word of every new verse. Handwritten sheet music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Purcell features off liner notes with jokes, asides, and stage directions. Schubert's sheets were so messy, it's a wonder anyone was ever able to read them.

I held my hand over the glass case, as though through osmosis via the air and glass, I could be closer to Austen's words and Mozart's notes. You could feel the collective reverence in the air as people gazed in awe at the manuscripts, some of them 1500 years old. If nothing else, that convinced me that thinking of a book as merely its contents and not its original format was a disservice to the value of a book. Centuries ago, the hand of genius had dipped its quill in ink and scratched across the surface of that paper, enshrining the glory of creation forever. No digital recreation can encapsulate that.


It was a hurried trip and there were many discussions during the tour, so I didn't get many notes written down; I only have impressions of the rooms I walked through. Robert Adam was the architect and built Osterley as a Palladian Palace, with a staggering entrance that was a covered front Porte-cochère-like area set up from a series of elephantine steps that lead into the grand entry hall inside magnificent front double doors. Everything in this house is built to a scale ranging from grand to grandiose.

A few things that were unusual: young misses of the house took harpsichord as well as pianoforte lessons, the fireplace grills were made of an alloy of copper and zinc called paktome, the inner shutters were designed to be flush with the wall when open and folded back, and the downstairs public rooms had double doors for privacy (for example, to separate women in the drawing room from the men in the dining room after dinner).

There were eager National Trust docents (warders?) in every room to impart very detailed information of every aspect of their rooms. They had so much stuff to tell and because I showed interest in listening, they talked my ear off. One even followed me into two other rooms and entered into three-way discussions with the other warders. My many thanks to them for their dedication and their willingness to educate me.


Diane Gaston said...

My impression of Soanes was that he had some hoarding tendencies. There were lots of pieces of "antiquity" that looked just like broken bits. Didn't he also have a table with a skull in the center in his basement?

The Hogarths were amazing, though.

You do a great job of describing these places!

Victoria Janssen said...

You're making me want to visit London again!

Keira Soleore said...

Diane, over the years, the curators have been busy winnowing out the obviously damaged and now worthles stuff. He had curiosities aplenty, but 'aplenty' being the operative word, there's lots of good stuff that the curators can put on display. Most of it is still unlabeled. So I suspect that either they consider it not worth the expense of having it expertly appraised, or they realize it's junky and leave it, because some of the value of the museum is that it is preserved as if Soane just left the house for an hour or two.

Keira Soleore said...

Victoria, if that is what my blogs have been doing, then I've been highly successful in conveying my enjoyment of my trip. Thank you.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee said...

Thanks for the vicarious enjoyment of going on the trip with you, Keira! :) Especially the glimpse of the Soane museum--when I went there I was overwhelmed with a sense of claustrophobia and had to go out and sit in the park before I finished going through it...

Keira Soleore said...

Ammanda, it certainly gives a good sense of physical spaces that the Regency folks inhabited. For me, I'm amazed how the nobility could adjust from their ostentatiously spacious country estates in the summer to these narrow town homes in the spring (and fall). Can you imagine two hundred people crushed into those rooms and corridoors for a ball? OMG!