Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Off the beaten track in London

Sir John Soane's Museum
    When my older boy told me he wasn't coming home over spring break: he'd be visiting London for the first time instead, conducting research at the School of Economics, I manfully resisted suggesting what he should do in his free time.
    Let him discover the city himself.
    Besides, kids never listen to their parents, mine especially, and I'd describe my favorite places, only to have him shrug them off.
     That would hurt. 
    Well, at least I tried not to make suggestions. I did break down and mention Sir John Soane's Museum—I always do, to anybody visiting London, since somebody mentioned it to me, and I feel the need to pass it forward. The place is special, to me, for reasons that will be clear below. But I mentioned it to my son in a casual, off-hand way, knowing that he'd never go, certainly not, not just because his dad suggested it. Why would he?
    When he got back, he phoned to describe his adventures: lunch at the Dorchester, shopping at Harrod's, drinks at the American Bar at the Savoy. The British Museum and, oh yeah, Sir John Soane's Museum. He liked it. I was surprised, shocked almost. Occasionally old dad catches a break.

    We are all just dice rattling around in fate's dice cup.
     Among the countless reasons why I happened to be walking down Lincoln's Inn Fields, a street facing a park, one was how the square tail fin of a 500-pound incendiary bomb caught the air as it tumbled from a German bomber high above the city in May 1941.
     Not that I realized it, as I searched for No. 13. I thought I was there simply because, a week earlier in Chicago, I had encountered Hal Weitzman, Midwest correspondent for the Financial Times. I've been to London repeatedly, I said, and already seen the usual things.
     "What should I see in London?" I asked. "Something that tourists don't know about; something off the beaten track."
     "John Soane's Museum," he answered immediately. That was good enough for me to find the address though, characteristically, I did so without investigating what the museum might be.
     I'm bad at premeditating trips — I prefer to simply go and see what happens. Surprise magnifies wonder. In addition to quizzing Hal, my sole attempt at planning consisted of asking myself what I would most like to do while in London.
     The answer? "See the queen."
     So I phoned Buckingham Palace, with typical American cheekiness. "I realize we're not going to have tea together," I blathered, "but maybe she'll be cutting a ribbon someplace and I could be in the crowd. . . ."
     Alas, I was told, the queen will be at her castle in Balmoral, Scotland.
     Rebuffed by royalty, I instead found myself in the middle of a block of elegant townhouses, looking at a white stone facade of tall arched windows, flanked by a pair of Greek statues. I went up the front steps, signed my name, and stepped into one of the most singular and unusual spaces I've ever visited.
     John Soane was the foremost architect in Britain in the early 1800s. He designed the Bank of England. The flattened dome atop the red London phone booths that still dot the streets here was inspired by the tomb Soane built for his wife.
     He moved into this house in 1813 and filled it with artwork and architectural ornaments — plaster casts, bits of molding, statuary, urns, medallions — intending it as a place of study for his students. In his old age, the 1830s, Soane was heaped with honors. One of them, in 1833, was an act of Parliament that decreed his house and its contents should remain unchanged forever.
     And so they have, lit by skylights and mirrors. The main hall is painted a deep Pompeian red — Soane was at the excavation of Pompeii in 1779 — its mahogany chairs so inviting that a thistle is set on the seat of each, to prevent visitors from accepting the invitation.
     It took me an hour to get through the first floor, lingering in the Picture Room, a small chamber jammed with paintings. The eight canvases of "Rake's Progress" are there, plus others by Hogarth, and a Turner watercolor, one of three.
     Soane had more masterpieces than wall space, so the Picture Room's walls are ingeniously hinged, folding forward to reveal a second wall of paintings within. That wall also opens to reveal a hidden nymph and other artifacts.
     How could such a place survive the fury of time? It nearly didn't. Soane's son sued to pry away the house. He lost. Despite attentive docents, visitors sometimes walk off with artifacts. My attention was drawn to a black oblong box, whose inscription explained that this was the pistol of Russia's Peter the Great, given to Napoleon, who gave it to "a gentleman."
     The box was empty.
     "What happened to Peter the Great's pistol?" I asked a guard.
     "A visitor stole it 40 years ago!" David Gardener said, hotly, as if it happened yesterday.
     Upstairs, in a yellow parlor, I noticed a small clear window pane standing out from the colorful stained glass. It bore a neatly etched inscription:
     "This window having been broken by enemy action in 1941 was restored with the inclusion of the only surviving panel from the window opposite in 1951."
     During the Blitz, a bomb fell across the park, destroying another museum, the Hunterian.      

     "There's a horrid modern building there now," a guard explained. The bomb blew out the windows and spattered burning rubble inside Soane's house. Gardener showed me a charred patch, the size of an egg cup, on a mahogany bench.
     "Luckily, someone was staying here and put it out," he said. "And many of the most important objects had been moved for safekeeping."
     Jealous Time sent other agents to attack the house — in the late 1980s, robbers struck the museum, but the police had been warned and were waiting across the street.
     "A man was shot dead in the entranceway," said Gardener. As I left, very reluctantly, I saw the bullet hole in the plaster, covered by a small piece of Plexiglas.
     I walked across the park to look at the new building — charmless, flat-faced, glass and red brick. And strange as it may sound, despite all that I've read and seen about the horrific destruction of World War II, the millions dead and cities ravaged, I don't think the terrible random savagery and incredible loss of war ever struck me quite the way it did thinking about that one bomb, whistling and twisting through the sky one day in May, the buffeting winds deciding whether John Soane's lovingly assembled legacy would continue or abruptly perish in a flash, whether a visitor in 2009 would get off the Central underground line at Holborn or go on to St. Paul's.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 2, 2009


  1. Thoughtful, beautifully written piece, as always. It's often peripheral things in your writing that grab my attention. An entire language full of possibilities to describe the size of a burned spot on a bench and you choose to compare it to an egg cup. Growing up in an economically deprived rural area where we were likely to be drinking from a mason jar, the idea of an cup just for eggs is as alien as a coach pulled by unicorns. Next you will be telling me that special spoons exist just to eat grapefruit.

    But Jealous Time. I looked it up and found no references. What is this?

    Thanks again for the wonderful stimulation.

    1. Google "egg cup" and you'll see pictures. It's a fairly utilitarian piece of china: something you eat a poached egg from. I suppose being in London put me in mind of them, but we have a few at home. Then again, we have an Asprey toast holder.

    2. We have a couple of egg cups that my wife picked up at P.O.S.H. They look like chickens. We don't use them, but I highly recommend them to anyone in need of more dust-collecting bric-a-brac.

    3. I've seen plenty of egg cups, but have never eaten a poached egg in my life. I think an aunt might have tried to foist one off on me when I was a kid, but I was having none of it.


    4. Actually, egg cups are used to serve soft-boiled eggs. Poached eggs are cooked in water outside of their shells. You'd never get one into those tiny cops.

    5. It's been almost 50 years since I left the watersheds of rural western Illinois so I've crossed paths with egg cups and grapefruit spoons on many occasions. I was merely looking for a chuckle. I was tickled that an egg cup was used as a point of reference for how badly a bench was burned. That, friends, is good writing.

      Jealous Time.

    6. Ah, well, you know that nuance is lost online. I figured you thought it was poncy.

  2. "Why Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford." Dr. Johnson

    "I viewed the morning with alarm.
    The British Museum had lost its charm." Ira Gershwin

    I was going to suggest that the Hunterian is also worth a visit, but Mr. Google advises that it's closed until 2020, evidently involved with a redo of the "horrid building."

    I also point first time visitors to the London museum, for history, The Wallace Collection and Kenwood house for art and domestic architecture, and while you're near the latter, "The Spaniard," for a pint or three of bitter ale.


  3. What a great column! I just spent the past hour pouring over pictures of the museum and Rake's Progress! Thank you Neil!

  4. I always recommend a side trip out to Hever Castle - a short train ride south of the city. A very interesting look at life of lesser royalty - childhood home of Anne Boleyn. A fun and educational day out of the city.


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