If you’ve visited Sir John Soane’s Museum, you’ll know that the eponymous architect left his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, to the nation, via an Act of Parliament. This may seem like the final triumph in a long life full of them: a knighthood, a gold medal from the Royal Academy and a series of prestigious projects including 45 years working on the Bank of England.
However, this isn’t the full story. Although Soane bought property in Lincoln’s Inn Fields many years earlier, it was his London base at that time. Between 1800 and 1810 he owned Pitzhanger Manor, nine miles west of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the village of Ealing.
As a young trainee architect, Soane had worked on an extension to the house for the previous owners. Now, as the new owner, he demolished the house – except for the extension! – and rebuilt it, adding a new main block with a connection to the kitchen via a colonnade. In the grounds Soane created ersatz Roman ruins, a lake for fishing and a bridge in the picturesque style.
The Soane family of Sir John, his wife Eliza and their sons John (junior) and George moved into the rebuilt Pitzhanger in 1804. The house was a place for entertaining friends, a show home with which to impress clients and potential clients… and, Soane hoped, the base for a dynasty of architects, as he hoped John and George would follow him into the profession.
It didn’t happen. Both sons disappointed their parents in differing ways, and neither became an architect. Eliza found her new home to be too isolated (not surprisingly), a hard blow for a sociable person. Sir John sold Pitzhanger in 1810, moving his collections to 13 Lincoln Inn’s Fields. (He had originally bought Number 12 and, some years later, he also bought Number 14. Sir John redeveloped all three buildings into what is now the Museum.)
After the Soanes, Pitzhanger went through various hands including those of the local council, which adapted it into a public library. Now the first building to which you come as a visitor – the old Lending Library – serves as a gallery for contemporary art, while the Manor and grounds have been restored to their respective appearances from Soane’s time.
The recreated Manor is a fitting tribute to Soane’s life and work. The Breakfast Room, with its painted ceiling evoking the oculus from Rome’s Pantheon, celebrates the Grand Tour which the young John Soan undertook around Europe (he added the extra ‘e’ to his surname later). It’s possible to feel ambivalent about the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper in the Upper Drawing Room, which is very pretty but at odds with the simpler Classicism of the ceiling design. On the ground floor, the dark, atmospheric Monk’s Dining Room once held much of Soane’s collection of ornaments, architectural fragments and statues which you can now see in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. (There never were any monks nor, as Soane used to claim, was there a hermit in residence; the space was a gleeful indulgence of Gothic fantasy.) You may not be able to view all the rooms on a single visit – we didn’t, as a few are fragile and undergoing further preservation work.
Pitzhanger Manor does have a melancholy aspect: like St Petersburg after Moscow supplanted it as Russia’s capital, it is less important than it once was. Sir John Soane’s dream of a Soane dynasty didn’t come to pass. But his name lives on as one of Britain’s most influential architects, and Pitzhanger is an important part of his story.