Historical Collections: Sir John Soane's Museum

One of London’s best, worst kept secrets is the Sir John Soane's Museum. Nestled away in Central London (only a 5 minute walk from the Holborn Tube station), Sir John Soane's personal collection is as expansive as it is enchanting, comprised of objects ranging from a sarcophagus to paintings by William Hogarth.

Sir John Soane (fig. 1) was the second born child to John and Martha Soan, in Goring-on-Thames in 1753. [1]  John Soan, was a bricklayer and was able to secure a position for his son, John Soane, working with George Dance the Younger (a founding member of the Royal Academy).   After some time with George Dance the Younger, Soane went off on a Grand Tour around the age of 25 to hone his architectural skills and see the world.  During his Grand Tour, Soane spent a large amount of time in Italy (specifically Rome) studying the country’s architecture.  After two years away, Soane returned to England in 1780 and worked on building his own architectural firm.  While it was not incredibly successful in the beginning, Soane’s skill in neoclassical designs soon won him recognition and quite a few projects.  Some of which being the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the Palace of Westminster in 1822. [2][3]  

Over the course of his career, Soane amassed over 30,000 architectural drawings, some of which by his own hand.[4]  Luckily for historians and interested architects, these drawings were left to the museum upon his death and can be accessed by academics.  Based on the staggering number of architectural drawings, it is fairly obvious that Soane loved to collect.  He collected a variety of objects, anything from pieces of facades to paintings from his friends.[5]  When he bequeathed his collection to his museum in 1833, the collection was given the rare opportunity to stay whole and displayed in its original setting. [6]  Before his collection became a museum, Soane was well known for inviting people over to see the contents of his collection, or to show off a newly acquired object.  As seen with the over 890 people who were invited to see the recent installation of the Seti Sarcophagus in his home.[7] (fig. 2)

To those unfamiliar with the museum, it is a wonder that so many people would have fit into such a small townhouse in London.  Soane had always wanted to use his collection to educate the students he taught at the Royal Academy, and decided to expand his home to enable large numbers of people to view his collection. [8]  So while it may look like the homes of No. 12, 13, and 14 on Lincoln’s Inn Field are separate, they are actually connected within (the main entrance being at No. 13).      

The collection is expansive and there is no way to quickly sum it up.  For the sake of convenience I have listed the below highlights of the collection, and will leave you with The Soane Museum’s online presence so you may see for yourself how difficult it is to summarize the wide-ranging collection.  

Collection Highlights:

  • A stunning library with over 7000 titles (ranging from novels to cook books)
  • Prized Sarcophagus of Seti I
  • William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (fig. 3)
  • 3 J.M.W. Turner paintings
  • 3 Caneletto paintings
  • An interior courtyard, containing a monument built in memory of his dog Fanny
  • Over 6000 objects (including sculpture, drawings, and antiquities)

Sir John Soane Museum Resources

The official museum website [link]

An online exploration of two rooms in the museum, by far one of the most impressive online platforms I have seen for showing a museum room online. [link]

The museum’s YouTube channel [link]

The museum’s Instagram, which has some of the most lovely images of the collection [link]

fig. 1 Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, Portrait of Sir John Soane aged 76, 1828-29
fig. 2 Sarcophagus of Seti I
fig. 3 A Rake’s Progress III: The Orgy, William Hogarth


[1] “The ‘e’ was added to the surname by the architect in 1784 on his marriage.”, “John Soane,” Wikipedia, last modified 25 September, 2020, .

[2] The Bank of England you see today, is not the one that Soane designed.  It was torn down in 1913 and redone by Herbert Baker

[3]According to the "John Soane" Wikipedia page, the part of the Palace of Westminster that Soane designed was lost in the fire of 1824.

[4] Sir John Soane Museum Website, Collections page, link

[5] J.M.W. Turner and Sir John Soane were known friends. “John Soane,” Wikipedia.

[6] Gillian Darley, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic (New Haven & London:Yale University Press, 1999), 301

[7] It should also be noted, that the viewing of this particular object was done over a three day period. So while the crowds were large, it was not 890 people all at once. Darley, John Soane, 275

[8] Sir John Soane Museum Website, Highlights page, link


Darley, Gillian.  John Soane: An Accidental Romantic. New Haven & London:Yale University Press, 1999.

“John Soane,” Wikipedia, last modified 25 September, 2020, [link].

“Sir John Soane’s Museum”, last modified 13 October, 2020, [link].

The Sir John Soane’s Museum [link], accessed 11-13 October, 2020.

Image Credits

Header Image: "The Breakfast Room", as shown in the Illustrated London News in 1864. [link]

fig. 1 Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA, Portrait of Sir John Soane aged 76, 1828-29. SM P11. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photo: Andy Johnson [link]

fig. 2 “The sarcophagus of Seti I in the Sepulchral Chamber in the centre of the ‘Museum’ at the back of the house”, as shown in the Illustrated London News in 1864.  [link]

fig. 3 A Rake’s Progress III: The Orgy, William Hogarth, 1732-35, Photo: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. [link]

Note: All views and opinions expressed are the author's own. If you feel there is missing information or wish to discuss any of the works please contact me.