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VM inspiration: Death and Memory and Halloween VM

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of architect Sir John Soane’s beloved wife, Eliza, his museum in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Field is staging a temporary exhibition, Death & Memory.

As Saturday is Halloween, All Hallow’s night and the time for ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night,’ so let’s take a look at some creepy VM inspiration. In particular Soane’s plans for his family tomb, seen here in an idealised view in the type of Romantic landscape popular at the time, could translate well to VM.

Soane (1753 – 1837) was a self-made man, hugely successful in promoting classical then fashionable Greek proportions. Latterly he was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy.

Apart from his designs for the Bank of London, now mostly destroyed, and many remodeled country properties, his Dulwich Picture Gallery with its top-lit windows remains much emulated today. Keen to create an architectural dynasty and for his two sons to follow his profession, he became embittered by their failure. Disinheriting them he left his much-loved home to the nation instead. Creepily housing an amazing collection of Grand Tour artifacts, it is curated with a meticulous visual eye and includes an alabaster sarcophagus in the basement.

In Soane’s vainglorious mind, the family tomb commemorated his name. In reality the tomb was scaled down and set in the prosaically flat landscape of old St Pancras churchyard, yet Soane was obsessed, making 48 drawings for the final grandiose and monumental design.

Soane’s home contained classical funeral objects, often part-restored, and purchased during his travels as examples of craftsmanship and pleasing proportions.

Monuments to a life reoccurred in Soane’s other work, as here in a monment design for the Duke of Wellington (1769 - 1852). A spooky series of sealed receptacles were left as time capsules to be opened after Soane’s death. The contents, including false teeth, a masonic apron and gloves, were considered to be a joke when first opened.

Soane’s family tomb was finally completed but he was unable to bring himself to visit it for years after his wife’s death in 1815. Surviving her by more than 20 years, he even cared for her dog, which lived another five years. At first he preserved her bedroom exactly as she had last used it, and later rather morbidly used it to house his many architectural models, almost as a receptacle for doll’s houses with architectural purpose.

Somewhat anticipating the late-Victorian obsession with death which is best seen today at Highgate cemetery, Soane’s variations for the tomb of marine painter Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, R.A. (1740 - 1812), would today make wonderful Halloween-style fixtures.

Soane’s tomb may be faintly familiar to UK residents, who often see Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s red telephone boxes, an icon of Britain. Architect Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960), was a trustee for the Soane museum and incorporated Soane’s trope, the shallow ellipse seen at the top of the mausoleum, in Kiosk, No 2, which was selected for production in cast iron. In a world of mobile phones these survive today as wi-fi hubs. The tomb is one of the two Grade 1 listed tombs in London.

Death and Memory: Soane and the Architecture of legacy, to 26th March 2016.

Admission free.

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