Collecting for Queen and Sundry

Art

Some of London’s strangest and most evocative museums were created from the private collections of visionary hoarders.

Those planning on embarking on a little spring-cleaning over the next few months might want to consider a period of reflection before they do so. Naturally, it may take some time before your clutter is considered to be of artistic or historic significance, but the evidence of two hidden gems on London’s museum scene suggests that one man’s living space could be tomorrow’s visitor attraction.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and Dennis Severs (1948-1999) led complementary lives many years apart. Each was fascinated by a civilisation belonging to a time and place very different from his own and both endeavoured to recreate elements of it within their own homes.

Soane was an architect and lecturer whose imagination tended to exceed his capacity to provide lasting buildings. Although examples of his work are dotted around London (including the Dulwich Picture Gallery), his changes to the Bank of England and Royal Courts of Justice had to be demolished, and his grandiose new royal palace was, fortuitously, never built.

With Soane’s architecture students increasingly prevented from taking their Grand Tours in Continental Europe due to the Napoleonic Blockade (1806-1815), Soane took to collecting statuettes, sarcophagi and fragments of Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian origins (albeit, mainly counterfeits), which he arranged in his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, near Holborn. The loss of his wife in 1816 may have had some bearing on the house remaining as it was during these years, but it also became a source of fame – 890 celebrities attended the three day party Soane threw in honour of his procurement and exhibition of the Seti sarcophagus in 1825. So notable was the collection, that even before Soane’s death Parliament had arranged to make the house a museum. Visitors should not pass up the opportunity to see a Canaletto and several Hogarths in the Picture Gallery.

Severs, an American, attempted a more direct creation of his ideal.  Shortly after moving to England he founded a horse and carriage service, the proceeds of which were invested in the purchase of 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, in what was once the self-governed Liberty of Norton Folgate. What modern conveniences existed were stripped out and replaced by candlelight or warmth from the hearth, the wood panelling restored and a collection of 18th– and 19th-century artefacts assembled to imply that a fictional family of Huguenot weavers was living there. In fact, the inhabitants were Severs himself and his house manager, Mick Pedroli, tempted from his home in Amsterdam to live in a cold, damp garret. Like Soane’s house, 18 Folgate Street became famous in the lifetime of its owner, but its longevity would have surprised Severs himself. He admitted shortly before his death that he had “recently come to accept what I refused to accept for so long: that the house is only ephemeral. That no one can put a preservation order on atmosphere.” Most visitors would agree, the atmosphere is still exemplary.

18 Folgate Street’s website describes Severs’ artistic vision for his house. He envisioned it as an immursive experience, including a plot involving ‘spells’ that visitors would (and still can) discover in each of the ten rooms. In Severs’s own words “Your senses are your guide.”

These are perhaps the two most extreme examples of a fashion of collecting prevalent after the Enlightenment. A slightly more than cursory glimpse at London’s more famous museums reveals the activities of other collectors – Sir Hans Sloane initially stocked both the British and Natural History Museums from his collections, and George III’s library is housed, undivided and in its entirety, in the British Library. None of these come close in sensory experience to those of Soane or Severs, however. Today, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk is building a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul as a counterpart to his novel of the same name. Whether this collection of artefacts illustrating the life of a fictional everyman will rival the world’s great collections remains to be seen.