Bruce Boucher is Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he obtained his PhD at The Courtauld. An art historian specializing in sculpture and architecture, for over twenty years Bruce Boucher taught at the University of London, before changing to museum work. His books include ‘The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, ‘Andrea Palladio: The Architect in his Time’, ‘Italian Baroque Sculpture’, and ‘Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova’.

Why come to direct Sir John Soane’s Museum?

The Soane is a national museum, in the same group as the British Museum, the V&A, the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The smallest of the national museums, the UK government has deemed the fantastic collection and buildings of international importance. The collection has over 40,000 objects, of which 30,000 are architectural drawings, and great paintings — the best Canaletto in the country, two important sets of paintings by Hogarth — marble and plaster casts of antiquities, and some medieval works.

What is its special appeal?

The Soane is an extremely well-preserved example of a kind of ‘house museum’ that was not uncommon in London in the early 19th century. Here this is the only one that survives. In Milan there is the Poldi Pezzoli, in Washington the Phillips Collection, and the Huntington just outside Los Angeles.

“The illuminated sarcophagus and house was the apex of Soane’s social achievement and his career as a collector.”

Portrait of Sir John Soane, aged 76, by Sir Thomas Lawrence ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Who was Sir John Soane?

A self-made man. The talented son of a bricklayer, he studied at the Royal Academy. The king gave him a travelling fellowship, and from 1778 to 1780 he was mainly in Rome, also Turin, Milan, Florence, Sicily, even Malta. He met aristocratic Grand Tour travelers, and back in London they employed him. One was a cousin of William Pitt, who became prime minister, and in 1788 Pitt appointed Soane architect of the Bank of England, his principal occupation for the next 30 years. He also designed houses, churches, law courts at Westminster, and the State Dining Room at No10 Downing Street.

Was he very fashionable?

Fashionable but controversial. He constantly feuded with other members of the Royal Academy. For several years he stopped lecturing on architecture because of disputes.

Was he wealthy?

In 1784 he married Elizabeth Smith. When her uncle died she inherited considerable property. Soane didn’t need to work anymore, but was very ambitious. He and his wife used her fortune to buy and rebuild houses. She died in 1815. He disinherited both his sons for various reasons, and his collection became his children.

Why did he collect in great quantity?

He had the idea of creating an academy and lobbied parliament to pass a bill that would designate No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a museum. He died in 1837 and left £30,000 as an endowment. The building has been continuously open since.

The current exhibition ‘Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharoah Seti I’ features the alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I. Is it your most important object?

Yes, the most expensive work that Soane purchased. He paid £2,000 for it, and the cost of building his house was £1,400. He had to knock a hole in the back of his house to get it in. In 1825, shortly after it arrived, he had three evenings of celebrations. The cream of London society came to see the illuminated sarcophagus and house. This was the apex of Soane’s social achievement and his career as a collector.

How did he acquire the Seti sarcophagus?

The explorer Belzoni worked with Henry Salt, the British consul in Cairo. They supplied the British Museum with early Egyptian works, including the colossal head of Ramses II. Belzoni got these works out of the Valley of the Kings and across the Mediterranean and to London. He brought the sarcophagus back in 1818 and exhibited it in the Egyptian Gallery in Piccadilly, where Fortnum & Mason is today. Soane bought it from Belzoni’s estate.

Why is the sarcophagus so important?

An icon and a remarkable creation, it’s a single piece of excavated limestone. Soane placed it in the centre of the museum, underneath the dome. Just above it is his bust, and opposite is a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere. So there’s focus on it.

What is this exhibition about?

Recently the Egyptology department of the British Museum transcribed the hieroglyphics on the sarcophagus. The story from the Book of Gates, part of the Book of the Dead, explains the route the sun takes from sunset to sunrise through the underworld, in a boat, going past the souls of the dead. There’s a theme of resurrection about the sarcophagus. The female figure in the bottom is Nut, the goddess of the sky. Putting the body of Seti in there was like putting him back into the womb and he would be reborn from Nut.

“Soane was not only interested in the classical world. He also very heavily invested in modern British art.”

What about the 30,000 architectural drawings?

There are Soane’s drawings, 1,000 drawings by Sir William Chambers, and 9,000 drawings by Robert Adam. Soane bought them for £800 in 1823 from the niece of Adam, who wasn’t fashionable by then. Style had moved on. He also bought the Codex Coner, a very important record of architecture in Rome that Robert Adam bought in the 1760s to sell to King George III. The king didn’t buy it, and it ended up as part of Adam’s estate, so Soane acquired it that way.

What else did he buy?

3,000 paintings, gems and cameos, 7,500 books. He bought David Garrick‘s edition of Shakespeare and bought the two sets of Hogarth paintings because they had belonged to David Garrick, who had acquired them directly from William Hogarth.

How many visitors come here?

Last year 121,504. Half come from abroad, and of those half come from the U.S. and Canada, the other half largely from Europe; Germany, Italy, France predominantly, but some Scandinavians; and there’s a sprinkling of Chinese and Japanese. We were open Tuesday through Saturday, but now we also open on Sunday. We limit the number of people in the building at one time to 85.

What is your purpose as Director?

To build up our educational programs, particularly for younger people, and to have a coherent strategy for exhibitions. Soane was not only interested in the classical world. He also very heavily invested in modern British art, and bought paintings by famous artists like JMW Turner.

Do you still buy?

No. It’s his collection, but people come here and are inspired. Marc Quinn, a famous British sculptor, created a series that responded to Soane’s interest in fragments. We work with artists and we balance exhibitions that explore the history and the collection, as with the Belzoni, with contemporary artists or architects who are responding to the collection.

View of the Dome Area, photograph: Gareth Gardner ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

The Sarcophagus of King Seti I, Photograph: AC Cooper ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Intarsia  (marble mosaic) panel of a youth driving a biga  (chariot) drawn by a pair of stags, Photograph: Lewis Bush

©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Riva degli schiavoni, Venice (View on the Grand Canal) by Canaletto ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Aerial cutaway view of the Bank of England from the  south-east, 1830, by Joseph Michael Gandy ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

London Façade of Nos 12, 13 and 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, photograph: John Bridges ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

“One shouldn’t be a slave to any one particular style; one should be able to mix styles.”

How do you liaise with the architectural world?

Sir David Chipperfield is one of our trustees; and we have had a close relationship with Julian Harrap architects for 20 years. We work on projects with young architectural firms like Assemble, who won the Turner Prize a couple of years ago.

Do many architects visit?

Students from the Architectural Association and the Bartlett School have drawing sessions here. We also run clubs for children from 10 to 18. This year we started a Soane Annual Lecture and medal; the first recipient was Rafael Moneo. We had 420 people in the audience, the majority young students, and a number of architects, Richard Rogers among others. Soane was influential with both postmodernists and modernists. His work is often cited by contemporary architects.

What would you like to see?

A more diversified audience, more young people involved, and what I call the “Soane without Walls”, taking the museum outside the building by having lectures and symposia as a forum for contemporary discussion of architecture and the built environment. The tremendous response we had to the Moneo lecture shows that there is a great deal of interest. Soane’s work has captured the imagination of a large number of people.


He was ahead of his time in many ways. His interest in the psychology of architecture, the manipulation of space, the use of colour and light to create mood, the deconstruction of the classical to achieve a language which was not strictly classical but a combination of a variety of sources.

Is there a Soane style of architecture?

It is pared down classicism that also mixes elements from Gothic, Greek and Roman together. He took to heart what Giovanni Battista Piranesi said, that one shouldn’t be a slave to any one particular style; one should be able to mix styles.


November 2017

Bruce Boucher, Director, photograph: Lewis Bush © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

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