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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Objects were placed so that every turn offers a discovery. One minute you are confronting a splendid Roman marble statue of Diana of Ephesus. The next, you are entering the Picture Room, lined with paintings such as Hogarth's Rake's Progress, a series of eight images charting the decline of a hedonistic young aristocrat. No sooner have you finished admiring an array of Piranesi drawings of Roman ruins than a warder opens a panel in the wall to reveal a group of paintings by Joseph Michael Gandy, Soane's draftsman. The gray-templed warder, Peter Collins, sports a carnation in his lapel and a red handkerchief in his top pocket. He has worked at the museum for ten years and knows his audience. He pauses for effect before opening yet another panel, this time revealing a balcony that looks out on the Medieval collection—called the Monk's Par-lour—filled with Gothic fragments and grimacing gargoyles. In a nearby alcove, a bare-breasted bronze nymph poses coyly at eye level above a scale model of Soane's most impressive architectural achievement, the Bank of England. (The bank, which he worked on for 45 years, was demolished in the 1920s as outmoded—a move that many architectural historians regard as a travesty.)

The highlight of the collection is found in the basement, where funerary art clutters around the alabaster sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I—Soane's pride and joy, purchased in 1824 for the sum of £2,000 (about $263,000 today) from the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni. In 1825 Soane held a series of candlelit "sarcophagus parties" to celebrate its arrival. The social extravaganzas were attended by such luminaries as the Duke of Sussex, the Bishop of London, poet Samuel Cole- ridge and landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Barbara Hofland, a guest, would write that at the event figures emerged like ghosts from the "deep masses of shadows" and candles shone "like lustrous halos round marble heads," creating an effect "as in a dream of the poet's elysium."

Among the many statues in the museum, it's easy to miss the 1829 bust of Soane himself on the first floor, placed above statuettes of Michelangelo and Raphael. The son of a bricklayer, Soane rose from humble origins; for his skill at sketching, he won a scholarship to tour Europe, which enabled him to visit Italy and develop a passion for Greco-Roman art. When he died at the ripe age of 83, Soane was one of the most distinguished individuals in Britain, a man, as Hofland wrote of the sarcophagus party guests, seemingly "exempt from the common evils of life, but awake to all its generous sensibilities."

This happy impression is reinforced by a Gandy drawing of the family in 1798: Soane and his wife, Elizabeth, are eating buttered rolls while their two young sons, John and George, scamper nearby. Of course, Soane was no more immune to fate's vagaries than the rest of us. His fondest ambition had been to found a "dynasty of architects" through his sons, but John was struck down in his 30s by consumption and George grew up to be quite the rake, running up huge debts and even publishing anonymous attacks on his father's architecture. Then too, Soane may not have been the easiest father. "He could be a man of great charm," says museum archivist Susan Palmer, "but he was also very driven, very touchy and moody, with a real chip on his shoulder about his poor origins."

Fearing that George would sell his collection when he died, Soane provided for its perpetuation in his will and was able to secure an act of Parliament in 1833 to ensure that his home would remain a venue, as he wrote, for "Amateurs and Students in Painting, Sculpture and Architecture." As a result, Soane's museum is run to this day by the Soane Foundation, although in the 1940s the British government took over the costs of maintenance in order to keep it free to the public, as it has been since Soane's death in 1837. "Thank goodness Mr. Soane didn't get on with young George," one of the warders observed with a laugh. "I'd be out of a job!"

I shuffled downstairs through the half-light, reclaimed my coat and umbrella and headed for the Ship Tavern, a 16th-century pub around the corner. As I dug into a shepherd's pie, I recalled the words of Benjamin Robert Haydon, another sarcophagus party guest: "It was the finest fun imaginable to see the people come into the Library after wandering about below, amidst tombs and capitals, and shafts, and noseless heads, with a sort of expression of delighted relief at finding themselves again among the living, and with coffee and cake."

Musée Jacquemart-André

There are dozens of small museums scattered throughout Paris, and their most devoted patrons are Parisians themselves. Some have substantial collections, like the Musée Carnavalet, which specializes in the city's dramatic history and displays such items as a bust of Marat, a model of the Bastille and locks of Marie Antoinette's hair. Others are the former residences of hallowed French artists and writers—the studio of Delacroix, the apartment of Victor Hugo and the appealingly down-at-the-heels Maison Balzac, whose most illustrious exhibit is the author's monogrammed coffeepot.

But none inspire such loyalty as the Jacquemart-André.

If Sir John Soane's Museum distills the eccentric genius of London, the Musée Jacquemart-André is the height of le bon goût, good taste. More a mansion museum than a house museum, it was nonetheless home to connoisseurs Édouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, a fabulously wealthy couple who in the 1880s and '90s built their own self-contained world of art and beauty on the Boulevard Haussmann—a fashionable avenue on the Right Bank, not far from the Champs-Élysées—replete with masterpieces that Louvre curators undoubtedly covet to this day.

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