London Top Destinations

Europe’s Small House Museums

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and other idiosyncratic house museums in Europe yield pleasures beyond their size

Library dining room of the Sir John Soane Museum (Martin Charles / Sir John Soane Museum)
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What is it about small, quirky museums that makes them so compelling? Perhaps it's because they can be traced to antiquity, when Greco-Roman temples would display both wondrous artworks and pagan relics—the spear of Achilles, Helen of Troy's sandal, or "giants' bones" (usually petrified mammoth remains). Medieval cathedrals carried on the tradition: tortoise shells or "griffin's eggs" (actually those of ostriches) might be placed alongside the relics of saints. In the Renaissance, Italian princes began assembling cabinets of curiosities, eclectic displays that could include any creation of man or nature: Egyptian mummies, pearls, Classical sculptures, insects, giant seashells or "unicorn horns" (most often from narwhals). The Italian collecting mania spread, so that by the end of the 18th century, there were thousands of private galleries in affluent homes all over Europe. On their grand tours of the Continent, travelers could journey from one marvelous living room to the next, surveying beautiful and mystifying objects.

By the mid-1800s, state-funded institutions such as the Louvre, the British Museum and Madrid's Prado had begun to acquire these private collections, many of which had been inherited by family members who lacked either the finances or the enthusiasm to maintain them. Yet despite large museums' financial advantage, small, esoteric museums have held on tenaciously. In fact, Europe is still full of them, and they induce a devotion that their grander counterparts often do not.

Many of these small collections are still housed in their owners' original homes and reflect their personalities. A number of them boast collections that would have pride of place in larger museums, but the domestic settings allow a sense of intimacy hard to find in vast galleries. And despite their idiosyncrasies, these house museums often provide a rare entree into a city's history and character. Here are four favorites:

Sir John Soane's Museum

It was a damp London evening when I crossed the large, leafy square of Lincoln's Inn Fields toward a tasteful row of dun-colored Georgian town houses. On closer inspection, the facade of No. 13 announced this was no ordinary house: mortared into the Italian loggia, or veranda, of creamy Portland stone were four Gothic pedestals, while a pair of replicas of ancient Greek caryatids were mounted above. But these flourishes only hinted at the marvelous world that lies within the former home of Sir John Soane (1753-1837), one of Britain's most distinguished architects—and diligent collectors. Soane not only turned his house into a lavish private museum, he provided that nothing could be altered after his death. As a result, Sir John Soane's Museum may be the most eccentric destination in a city that brims with eccentric attractions. Visiting it, you feel that Soane himself might stride in at any moment to discuss the classics over a brandy. To preserve the intimacy of the experience, only 50 visitors are allowed inside at a time. And the evocation of a past time is even more intense if you visit—as I did—on the first Tuesday evening of the month, when the museum is lit almost entirely by candles.

When I rang the bell, the imposing wooden door opened to reveal a gray-haired gentleman who might well have been Soane's butler. While I signed the guest ledger, an attendant fussed over my coat and umbrella, taking them for safe- keeping. I was then ushered into a Pompeian red parlor.

"I hope you enjoy the house," the attendant whispered.

On every table and mantel, candles blazed in glass cylinders. As I padded carefully down a passageway, my eyes adjusted to the light and I began to make out arrangements of artifacts and furniture that have barely changed in 170 years. The house is an intricately designed labyrinth, filled to capacity with art: Classical busts, fragments of columns and Greek friezes, Chinese vases, and statues of Greek and Roman gods, including a cast of the famed Apollo Belvedere. Scarcely an inch of wall space has been wasted, and yet the effect is not claustrophobic: arches and domes soar upward, convex mirrors provide expansive views and balconies yawn over interior courtyards. Like any decent cabinet of curiosities, the displays also include such oddities as a "large fungus from the rocks of the island of Sumatra" (as Soane described it in his own 1835 inventory) and a peculiar-looking branch of an ash tree. Adding to the sense of mystery, and in keeping with Soane's wishes, there are no labels on any of the artifacts, though some information is now provided on hand-held wooden "bats" that sit discreetly on tables in each room.

"People really respond to the candlelit evenings," says the museum's director, Tim Knox. In fact, warders, as the museum's guards are called, have begun turning off lights during the daylight hours, he tells me, "to enhance the period ambiance. The half-light makes people really look at the exhibits."

Soane was Britain's leading architect for nearly five decades, and his numerous commissions are all around London—the Dulwich Picture Gallery; the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Pitzhanger Manor-House. (Even Britain's iconic red telephone booths were inspired by Soane's design for his wife's tomb in St. Pancras Gardens.) But it was in his own home—designed to emphasize what Soane called the "fanciful effects which constitute the poetry of Architecture"—that his creativity was given freest rein. From 1792 to 1824, Soane purchased, demolished and rebuilt three town houses along the square, starting with No. 12 and moving on to 13 and 14. Initially they were home to himself, his wife and their two sons, but starting in 1806, when he was appointed professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, he began to use them to display his architectural designs and models. In time, his growing collection of antiquities became more important, and with endless inventiveness, he redesigned his interiors to show off the artifacts to full effect.

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