I have long been a fan of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837); and his London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now Sir John Soane’s Museum, is one of my favourite places. I love its quirkiness, its ingenious use of light – long horizontal windows in strange places, like just below the ceiling and skylights letting in light from above – and the unexpectedly vibrant colours he liked to use.
Sir John Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
I knew, vaguely, that he’d had a country house but I thought it had been demolished, as, alas, so many of his buildings have been. I was wrong. Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was his country home from 1800 to 1810 and it still exists. After the Soanes left, it went into a period of decline. Now, it has been beautifully restored.
Pitzhanger Manor and Art Gallery: Soane’s new house is on the right: on the left is George Dance’s 1768 extension
Soane bought the house, which had been built originally for a City merchant in the 17th century, from the architect George Dance the Younger whose apprentice he had been. Soane then demolished much of the house – it wasn’t grand enough – but left Dance’s extension out of respect for his former master. The two styles could not be more different – and, as you can see, Soane’s new building definitely makes a statement. He wanted the house to reflect his success as an architect (he’d built the Bank of England amongst other prestigious buildings) and his rise in status – he was the son of a bricklayer and, in his darker moments, he felt his social inferiority keenly.
The Breakfast Room
This is where the family had a simple breakfast – tea, coffee, toast, rolls and butter. The ceiling shows his trademark shallow saucer dome. The wooden floor is simple, and we note the Greek key pattern going up the sides of the fireplace and echoing a similar Greek key pattern surrounding the painting of a blue sky ringed with clouds in the centre of the dome. The room has that understated but noticeable elegance so typical of Soane.
The breakfast room opens onto the library which is about twice the length of the breakfast room. It, too, is a simple room. Its ceiling – another shallow dome – has a painting of a blue sky with thin branches from a leafy tree crossing it. It might be raining outside but, inside, it is a sunny day with the rustle of leaves overhead. There are few books there now but Soane prided himself on his library: he owned copies of the Greek and Roman classics (as a young man, he had won a scholarship which took him on a Grand Tour, and he made good use of his time in Rome), he also had books on architecture, history, literature, poetry and music.
There was something of the Romantic in Soane’s nature, too, and he had works by Rousseau and Goethe dealing with fashionably Byronic dark thoughts, solitude, romance and persecuted love. A print by Joseph Gandy shows the library at Pitzhanger in 1802 with shelves full of books – and marble funeral urns.
The library opens onto the conservatory, a wide corridor which runs along the back of the house and allows light to flood in. The conservatory is empty now, except for some potted plants, but there is plenty of space for a bench if you wanted to sit and admire the garden.
The Small Drawing-Room
At the end of the conservatory and behind the library is the Small Drawing-Room whose colour – a vivid scarlet – comes as quite a shock. Soane believed that a vivid red best set off his art collection which included a couple of Canalettos, a picture by J M W Turner, a personal friend who was still in his twenties, and Hogarth’s eight paintings depicting The Rake’s Progress, bought with her usual business acumen by Mrs Soane. (Interestingly, the Queen’s Gallery has one of its rooms painted a similarly vivid red to set off its Leonardo drawings.)
The Eating Room
Behind the small drawing-room and down some stairs is the spacious Eating Room, designed by the house’s former owner, George Dance; Soane had worked on it himself as an apprentice. The colours here are Wedgwood blue and green with a complicated plaster work ceiling with geometric shapes, as well as a nod to more classical ornamentation in the ceiling roses and in the alcoves. Mrs Soane bought a blue and white Spode dinner service to go with her ‘fourteen chairs with horsehair seats’ for added comfort.
Dining with the Soanes
The Soanes enjoyed having visitors. Pitzhanger was about eight miles outside London – walking, it took about three hours, or one hour by coach. Nowadays, the Eating Room looks somewhat austere, but an early picture of the Eating Room shows that the windows had elaborately draped red curtains and there was a large brightly-patterned carpet on the floor. Here the table has been set for twelve guests with Soane at the head of the table and Mrs Soane at the foot. The Trust have printed the blue and white Spode plates on the tablecloth, but the other items: cutlery, spilt wine, bits of food, spectacles, and so on, have been cleverly embroidered or appliqued onto the tablecloth. All the guests, including J M W Turner, are known to have dined with Soane, who looked forward to his ‘intellectual banquets’.
The place setting for Mrs Soane.
The embroidery above her plate tells us that: ‘Mrs Soane’s opinions were distinguished for originality and acuteness.’. The centre of her plate reads: ELIZA SOANE wife, mother, gardener and woman of independent views.’
Eliza was no nonentity; she came from an educated background and she brought Soane a substantial fortune on her marriage; and it was she who looked after his financial affairs efficiently.
The place setting for Edward Foxhall reads: ‘The Blockhead from Old Cavendish Street.’
Mr Foxhall was an interior designer who worked on Pitzhanger and lived locally. Note the appliqued spilt red wine beside the embroidered fallen wine glass. One suspects that Mrs Soane greeted his arrival with some reservation.
Dinner would have begun at about 4.30 – 5 pm. It comprised two courses followed by dessert. The table was set out in a way that Jane Austen would have recognized. All the dishes for each course were set out on the table symmetrically and the guests would have helped themselves. This meant that the conversation would not have been constantly interrupted by servants; a consideration if you were discussing a contentious subject.
The room was lit by a number of Greek statues holding oil lamps
So, what might they have discussed? The Napoleonic Wars, perhaps. Soane admired Napoleon for his efficient administration and for the grand public buildings he’d commissioned. Then there was the convoluted politics of the Royal Academy where Turner exhibited at Summer Exhibitions, or, perhaps, the possibly contentious topic of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. As the wine circulated, the talk might have got freer and included the latest gossip about the Duke of Kent and his French mistress, the beautiful, witty and accomplished Madame de Saint Laurent who lived nearby. (I couldn’t help feeling that she sounded like the ideal dinner guest.)
I’ve always loved cantilevered staircases which have no visible means of support. Originally, this one had a stair carpet and the brass holders for the stair rods are still in position. There is an alcove with a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of knowledge, commerce and arts and crafts – very suitable as the presiding goddess for an architect. There was also an empty alcove for flowers – Mrs Soane loved her garden and liked flowers in the house.
On the next floor up there is an austere master bedroom and beyond that the Upper Drawing-Room which, in my view, is the most beautiful room in the house. It has a most attractive moulded ceiling, originally designed by George Dance, and but its real glory is the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper.
Upper Drawing-Room ceiling.
During restoration work, the red at the centre of the ceiling rose turned out to be realgar, a red pigment mixed with highly toxic arsenic. For the blue, green and white, the restorers stuck to the original colours; for the red, they chose something less toxic.
Another view of the Upper Drawing-Room
The mahogany doors on each side have their own, beautifully designed doorknob to open the door, keyhole cover and a central doorknob to close the door.
Detail of the Chinese Wallpaper
I could happily have spent hours just looking at the wallpaper but time was ticking on. We had one last room to see, this time in the basement: the curious Monks’ Dining-Room.
The Monk’s Dining-Room.
There was a dark side to Soane; and his obsession with death finds expression in the Gothic Monk’s Dining Room which was, he claimed, inhabited by a hermit. There was no hermit, but the room could be described as an expression of Soane’s own melancholic alter ego. It is painted a lugubrious purple, a human skull sits on a table, and various bits of Gothic sculpture and grotesque masks hang on the walls. There is not much light. It must have been a gloomy room.
Sadly, his moods darkened as he grew older and his relationship with his unsatisfactory sons, for whom he’d had great hopes, worsened. Mrs Soane, too ,was distressed by her sons’ behaviour and it all contributed to Soane’s decision in 1810 to sell Pitzhanger Manor and move back to London.
Outside at the back of the house
The gardens, too, will, eventually, have much to offer the visitor but not yet. As you will see from the photograph above taken through the conservatory’s glass,at the moment, there is a lot of work being done for an event and the whole area is blocked off. Fortunately, things will return to normal on 1st July.
Informal planting at the front of Pitzhanger Manor
The planting at the front looks more promising. Still, for me, the Upper Drawing Room with the beautiful Chinese wallpaper was enough on its own to warrant a visit.
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