I met Caroline Coon this morning at Holborn, for our trip to the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Every month or so, we meet for a catch up and a museum or art gallery visit. Caroline is a really good chooser, and this venue was no exception.
On the pavement, a polite and cheerful attendant gently persuades you to put your bag into a plastic carrier bag (in our cases, almost like reverse childbirth); you hang your coat on a hook by the door, and enter an enthralling world almost entirely lit from above through cupolas and skylights and craftily-positioned mirrors and windows that send shafts of light down on to exhibitions of ancient remains (I particularly liked the small wall of paws), or a suffused autumnal glow through vistas of carpeted rooms with inlaid chairs (every chair has a daintily-placed by menacing teasel placed upon it as a subtle hint that they are not to be sat upon).
There was so much to see, and more than we ever imagined, as we turned around just before leaving due to Carolin'e inspired enquiry about the drawings for the design of the Bank of England and re-entered a tiny, square room that displayed amongst other things a recently-restored painting by Canaletto.
The gallant and knowledgeable attendant undid some brass fittings, unfolded the whole wall to gasps of disbelief, and there was a whole other layer of paintings and drawings: the Bank of England, and a drawing showing all the buildings Soane designed in a collection, and a drawing showing all the ones that never got built....
The attendant told us stories galore before undoing yet another wooden layer and showing us the Monk's Parlour from above, stained glass and all.
More was in store: we shuffled across the room, for at the other side the secret shutter his the entire sequence of Hogarth's paintings of The Rake's Progress. By this time losing his voice and ready for his one o'clock soup, we were talked through the sequence of events: and there was Handel at a spinet, painted from behind as he had told Hogarth never to put him in one of his paintings. And there was the Rake's gardener (according to Hogarth's great great grand-daughter, who had visited the museum).
It is a completely magical experience to visit this museum. Every single attendant was ready and enthusiastic to tell us anything we wanted to know (for instance, Soane was an abolitionist, but this was almost the lesser of two evils as the alternative back then was to be an imperialist, whose adherents wanted to plunder and rule Africa anyway). Soane's enthusiasm for architectural design was more than matched by the museum staff, and this rubbed off on the visitors. Every time we wondered something aloud, someone with a guide book would answer our question; and as I was translating a French notice under one of the pictures, others were listening in politely.
Sweetest of all, a mausoleum in the yard addressed 'Alas, Poor Fanny', is in fact dedicated to Soane's wife's pet Manchester Terrier who outlived her to capture her master's heart.
So much to see: three layers of shutters on the front windows, Georgian underfloor heating, curios, oil paintings, space; I can't describe it all. It would be a perfect rainy day destination to change the mood and revive a sense of wonder.
Ten out of ten- for staff, respectful preservation and sheer magic!