The Cloud-Capped Towers: Shakespeare in Soane’s Architectural Imagination
Hot on the unclad heels of Sarah Lucas’s show at Sir John Soane’s Museum comes an exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. London is awash with Shakespeare festivities from Somerset House to Dr Johnson’s House. The Soanian exhibition is the best, the most intriguing, and is set in a superior interior. The playwright’s connection to the architect is far from tenuous. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Soane comes halfway between Shakespeare’s time and ours,” muses Dr Frances Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books at the museum. Last spotted leading a tour of 20 St James’s Square, Fran is one of a trio of erudite academics on duty. “The bard’s reputation was really only fully established in the 18th century Georgian period. He wasn’t a national hero before then. It kicked off, in part, with the actor David Garrick. And the Shakespeare Ladies Society! Soane, as an educated gentleman, was a collector of Shakespeariana.”
Professor Alison Shell of University College London, Guest Curator of the exhibition, adds, “Bibliophilia gathered pace as the 19th century progressed. Bibliomania! The madness of books! Soane acquired all four Shakespeare folios, a feat a private collector could never match now. One of the folios belonged to James Boswell. Shakespeare was something of a religion to Soane who venerated great men. Soane was a Romantic with a capital R!”
The exhibition space occupies two first floor galleries in the house to the left of the museum’s famous façade. “It was too tempting not to get out all four folios to make the point! Lovely!” smiles Alison. “It’s a celebration of the imaginations of Soane and Shakespeare.” The patronage of Dr Johnson’s friend Garrick is on display through actors’ portraits and theatre designs. Garrick commissioned both Soane and Robert Adam so another celebrated architect is represented. Indeed, Soane astutely purchased the full set of Adam’s office drawings.
Tying various artistic strands together is Soane’s drawing of George Dance’s front elevation of the Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall. Short lived and commercially disastrous, the design of the Shakespeare Gallery nonetheless was inspirational to Soane. Its flying saucer domes would later reappear at the Dulwich Gallery.
Museum Archivist Sue Palmer points to a diary, “Rather charmingly, when Eliza and he went to visit their son studying architecture in Liverpool, Soane noted their visit to plays in Stratford-upon-Avon. So that’s rather fun!” All three academics concur that Soane was the most literary architect Britain has ever had. In 10 out of his 12 Royal Academy lectures he quoted Shakespeare. His interest in theatre, a medium obsessed with illusion, befits the great conjurer of space. Soane promoted Shakespeare as the supreme embodiment of English literature. The architect never knowingly undersold his talent. No doubt Soane was heavily hinting that he was the supreme embodiment of English architecture.