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Architect Sir John Soane’s exquisite models showcase the history of classical design

A legendary English architect’s obsession with collecting models became a huge part of his legacy

Stepping into the townhouse at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Central London is akin to stepping into the eccentric mind of an architect—who also happened to be a hoarder. The townhouse was the home of English architect Sir John Soane, a legendary figure from the late 18th and early 19th century, and after an extensive renovation, it reopened last year as a museum, showcasing one of the largest collection of architectural models in the world.

The bricklayer’s son turned professor at the Royal Academy and official architect with the Office of Works shaped neoclassical design and commercial architecture with masterpieces such as the now-gone Bank of England building. His work even inspired the shape of the capital’s iconic red telephone booths (it’s based on the shape of a tomb he designed for his late wife, Eliza).

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And his richly appointed townhouse overflows with the kind of rare artworks and elaborate decorations you’d expect from a student and master of the built environment.

But, as fitting his brilliant, obsessive, and eccentric nature—he kept a mummified cat that, along with an alabaster sarcophagus, formed part of his collection of Egyptian antiquities—the home is, most notably, a museum of architecture, filled with thousands of plans and sketches as well as a series of more than 150 custom models Soane commissioned showcasing the wonders of then-contemporary structures and the ancient world.

Soane’s home captures the collector in the midst of accumulating, in his case, with a broader mission in mind. A 1833 act of Parliament guaranteed that after his death, his home would become a museum (the act also kept his son George, with whom he had a lasting feud, from any inheritance). Until he passed in 1837, Soane spent his remaining years stocking it and ensuring it would be a worthy collection.

According to Helen Dorey, the Soane Museum’s current Inspectress (a title mandated in the 1833 legislation), Soane’s home, which he shared with Eliza until her death in 1815, grew throughout his life, encompassing what was once three separate houses on Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. As his collection grew, he would buy the house next door, demolishing and rebuilding to fit his needs.

The recent restoration of the space, overseen by Julian Harrap Architects, took pains to get the details right, using 19th century paintings as guides for redecorating. But the models still maintain their original power and stand much as they were since they were first carved or sculpted (a notable exception is a massive model of the ruins of Pompeii, which was cut in half).

Soane made models a core part of his practice, commissioning artisans to create dozens of detailed replicas throughout his career. Many were for his private commissions, such as homes and public buildings.

"Wherever a model has been dispensed with, I am afraid the building has suffered in consequence thereof, either in solidity or convenience, and perhaps both," he told his students at the Royal Academy.

Lacking the digital technology of today, models were an incredibly powerful means of selling clients on an idea. Soane’s artistry extended into salesmanship, especially when it came to the way he utilized models for big commissions. A model for a London Law Court included colored lines showing pathways and circulation throughout the building, a savvy means to showcase the benefits of the well-conceived design.

Soane didn’t begin collecting historical models until the early 1820s, when he was more than 70 years old. The impressive array of classical buildings captured in miniature not only reminded him of eras past, but his own past as a young man traveling Europe. Between 1778 and 1780, he toured the continent as a young man, a formative trip often referred to as the Grand Tour. Visiting Europe as part of a "traveling studentship" awarded by George III and the Royal Academy, he saw many of the world’s most iconic buildings.

Cork models of these structures were sold as tourist souvenirs, despite being handcrafted by professional modelmakers, such as Domenico Padiglione, of Naples. The largest of his acquisition, a huge cork model of Pompeii, was brought back from Italy by his student John Sanders.

Soane’s collection includes 20 pieces by acclaimed artisan François Fouquet, one of the most famous modelmakers of his day. From a recreation of a monument at Palmyra to a model of Rome’s Parthenon, Fouquet’s work is some of the most delicate of the collection, done to reflect the original look of the building when it was first completed. Soane paid £100 for the lot, and all are stored under glass domes. Supposedly the 10-and-a-half-inch-tall Fouquet model of the Roman Temple of Vesta at Tivoli inspired Soane’s "Tivoli Corner" for the Bank of England, a Turrell-like circular opening on the edge of the great building.

The bedroom of his late wife, Eliza, became the model room, and now stands as one of the highlights of tours through the reopened space. The remaining half of the huge model of Pompeii, is flanked by wood, cork, and plaster pieces, offering a miniature tour of classical style and grace.

Soane’s collection is now restored to its original configuration, in the same room and on the same stands he originally intended. The building was damaged during WWII bombings, and a previous curator arranged the models in another space. But now, lots of care, as well as an Adopt-a-Model program, where companies or individuals fund sponsor a model for a decade, guarantee Soane’s vision of an architectural education in miniature will remain intact.