Sir John Soane

I first went to the Dulwich Art Museum to see the furniture. There is some good furniture there, most of which I have forgotten so I must return. Dulwich was designed by Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and it has become the museum that many architects that build exhibition spaces defer to. The reason is the way in which Soane lets light into the gallery. What he does is place a separate structure on the flat roofs of each gallery space that are themselves roofed and have glass walls. The ambient light becomes the primary light source for the gallery as there are no windows. It is a brilliant and radical solution for showing paintings. I have to say that it is not so good for showing furniture because the light diffuses rapidly as it flows down the red gallery walls making the three dimensional objects the last in line and they are bathed in the darkness that their own shadows help to create.

Soane’s house in London is another radical solution. Unlike the Dulwich Art Museum, his house is filled with windows. He has to have them because he has things, three dimensional antiquities, on display on virtually every wall in every room. It is an incredible testament to a man whose muse was classical and whose spirit was progressive and his ability to not compromise the one and incorporate the other.

At this point, I should have a critique about modern architecture. I don’t know a great many buildings, but I have been to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Guggenheim in Bilboa and they were both enjoyable experiences. Will time treat them well? Are they suited for showing paintings and/or the decorative arts? One is but the other less so in my opinion, but I know that Soane’s reputation has vacillated enormously as I expect both Gehry’s and Calatrava’a will as well. Sometimes, time itself strips a building of its buildup and sometimes we are just plain fickle.

So I found myself in London this last Sunday and thought that I should re-visit the Dulwich Art Museum of which so much is made by contemporary museum designers.

Dulwich is a very pretty part of South London. Lots of green park and a college make up a substantial portion of the village. The art museum is quite small and when I walked into it, I started to recall some of my impressions from nearly thirty years ago when I first went there. I remembered well the smallness of the musem and it also had a dinginess to it which was more sad than anything. The furniture and the paintings just were not on the beaten track.

Things have changed. The museum no longer relies on Soane’s innovative lighting scheme. There is good artificial light throughout to the extent that there are now blinds on the windows above. A lot of the paintings and most of the furniture has been restored and the place was bursting with people. The paintings, to my untrained eye are wonderful, particularly a portrait by Cosimo that I liked, and the furniture is a mix of periods, styles and country of origin. A few things are exceptional such as the commode probably made by Vile and Cobb.

What interests me, however, is less the collection and more the position of  status this museum has. Soane’s lighting was innovative, but does it really work? I am not so certain as the windows must be clean and the sun shining for maximum affect. I was there on a gray rainy day and without the artifical lighting, the museum would have been empty. Beyond the lighting, however, there are some elegant touches that are very Soaneian. The doorways have a nice inset bead around them obviating the necessity of overdoors or jambs. The archways are simple and elegant. The manner in which the ceiling begins is vaulted arches which give the walls an even more monumental sense of tabula rasa making the paintings seem even more appropriate as wall decoration. The exterior, too, is simple elegant Soane with hints of Attic temples in the doorways and tombs on the roofs.

As Britian’s first public art gallery, devoted to just art and some furniture, it is a touchstone, whether or not every aspect of it works to perfection. It is a building to which a considerable amount of thought has been given and which reflects a mastery of restraint.

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