Architects Architecture Art People

Sir John Soane’s Museum London + William Shakespeare

The Cloud Capped Towers Shakespeare in Soane’s Architectural Imagination

Sir John Soane Museum Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hot on the unclad heels of Sarah Lucas’s show at Sir John Soane’s Museum comes an exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. London is awash with Shakespeare festivities from Somerset House to Dr Johnson’s House. The Soanian exhibition is the best, the most intriguing, and is set in a superior interior. The playwright’s connection to the architect is far from tenuous. Quite the opposite in fact.

Sir John Soane Museum Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Soane comes halfway between Shakespeare’s time and ours,” muses Dr Frances Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books at the museum. Last spotted leading a tour of 20 St James’s Square, Fran is one of a trio of erudite academics on duty. “The bard’s reputation was really only fully established in the 18th century Georgian period. He wasn’t a national hero before then. It kicked off, in part, with the actor David Garrick. And the Shakespeare Ladies Society! Soane, as an educated gentleman, was a collector of Shakespeariana.”

Sir John Soane Museum Passageway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Professor Alison Shell of University College London, Guest Curator of the exhibition, adds, “Bibliophilia gathered pace as the 19th century progressed. Bibliomania! The madness of books! Soane acquired all four Shakespeare folios, a feat a private collector could never match now. One of the folios belonged to James Boswell. Shakespeare was something of a religion to Soane who venerated great men. Soane was a Romantic with a capital R!”

The exhibition space occupies two first floor galleries in the house to the left of the museum’s famous façade. “It was too tempting not to get out all four folios to make the point! Lovely!” smiles Alison. “It’s a celebration of the imaginations of Soane and Shakespeare.” The patronage of Dr Johnson’s friend Garrick is on display through actors’ portraits and theatre designs. Garrick commissioned both Soane and Robert Adam so another celebrated architect is represented. Indeed, Soane astutely purchased the full set of Adam’s office drawings.

Sir John Soane Museum Mausoleum © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tying various artistic strands together is Soane’s drawing of George Dance’s front elevation of the Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall. Short lived and commercially disastrous, the design of the Shakespeare Gallery nonetheless was inspirational to Soane. Its flying saucer domes would later reappear at the Dulwich Gallery.

Sir John Soane Museum Dome © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Museum Archivist Sue Palmer points to a diary, “Rather charmingly, when Eliza and he went to visit their son studying architecture in Liverpool, Soane noted their visit to plays in Stratford-upon-Avon. So that’s rather fun!” All three academics concur that Soane was the most literary architect Britain has ever had. In 10 out of his 12 Royal Academy lectures he quoted Shakespeare. His interest in theatre, a medium obsessed with illusion, befits the great conjurer of space. Soane promoted Shakespeare as the supreme embodiment of English literature. The architect never knowingly undersold his talent. No doubt Soane was heavily hinting that he was the supreme embodiment of English architecture.

Reflection of Soane's Shakespeare Gallery Drawing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architects Architecture Art People

Sir John Soane’s Museum London + Sarah Lucas

Power in Woman

Sarah Lucas @ Sir John Soane Museum Passageway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forget Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Breakfast at Soane’s is where it’s at. A private private view at sunrise in the North Drawing Room. Soane wasn’t afraid of breaking convention. Neither are the museum curators. At first glance it’s an alarming intervention: three contemporary sculptures of females from the waist down sitting, one cross-legged two open-legged, in a 19th century interior. British artist Sarah Lucas certainly has form. At second glance the plaster sculptures may be viewed as a development of Soane’s in situ collection of classical casts. Admittedly none of Soane’s have cigarettes protruding out of orifices. In a nice twist, the pale sunset yellow of the North Drawing Room inspired the colour of Sarah Lucas’s British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Power in Woman @ Sir John Soane Museum Passageway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architects Architecture People

The Roxburghe Hotel + Charlotte Square Edinburgh

Ministerial Positions

Charlotte Square Edinburgh © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Turns out Scotland’s First Minister isn’t just better at debates than the UK’s Prime Minister. She’s got a more palatial pad. They might both be terraced houses but Number 10 doesn’t hold a Georgian candle to Number 6. Downing Street in London is a mean little hotchpotch of a side street. Charlotte Square in Edinburgh is an expansive leafy neoclassical masterpiece of town planning. Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon’s official address, is a lot finer than the Old Etonian’s accommodation. Albeit a little chillier for barbeques.

Charlotte Square Edinburgh Steps © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

New Town Edinburgh © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Charlotte Square Edinburgh Railings © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Charlotte Square is the apex, the apogee, the climax, the pinnacle, the zenith of the horizontality – those palace frontages! – of Edinburgh’s New Town. Its 18th century town planner was 22 year old James Craig. No less an architect than Robert Adam designed the buildings lining the square. Details hint at the social hierarchy and habits of times past. Rough stone for the servants’ basement; smooth stone for the masters’ piano nobile. Trumpet shaped openings in the cast iron railings would have been used to snuff out the flamed torches carried by ‘link boys’ to illuminate residents’ way home at night. Glimpses can be captured at street level of the Firth of Forth – nature is never far away in Scotland. Even the built form often resembles rocky outcrops.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's Gardens Charlotte Square © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

For those who don’t rule the northern part of this island, Number 38 Charlotte Square is the alternative place to stay. The Roxburghe is an updated architectural microcosm of Edinburgh itself. Reflecting the conjoined Old and New Town twins, this hotel is formed by a New Town and Very New Town embrace of Georgian and contemporary. Taking up residence permanently as Nicola’s neighbour would cost a wee bit under £600k for a four bedroom penthouse on Charlotte Square. Calling by Dave’s for a pint of milk, a lot more.

Roxburgh Hotel Edinburgh Reception © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley


Edinburgh + The Doors

Opportunity Knox

Edinburgh Doors © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Edinburgh, where even the doors have a chilly grandeur.

Hotels Luxury Restaurants

The Secret Garden + The Witchery by the Castle Edinburgh

Hot Stuff | We’re Stuffed | Get Stuffed

The Witchery Edinburgh Windows © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Quail’s eggs on a watercress nest at Mayfair regular Hush, Maundy Thursday. Fried duck eggs at Holborn favourite The Delaunay, Resurrection Sunday. And so a procession of lunisolar led lunches, moveable feasts, begins. An extended Easter Triduum. When a man is tired of London, there’s always Edinburgh. Squared hen’s eggs on board Virgin, Easter Wednesday. York – Durham – Newcastle – Berwick-upon-Tweed – everywhere looks better when viewed from the 1st Class carriage. Rows of distant roofs punctuated by chamfered dormers announce to the visually aware the proximity of the Border.

The Witchery Edinburgh Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Oh yes I stayed in The Witchery years ago,” a journalist bravely whispered to us during the Making Africa press briefing in the Guggenheim Bilbao. Admittedly a mildly incongruous locale for such a muted conversation. It was undoubtedly a memorable stay. “I woke up in the middle of the night in the most frightful sweat! It was like the bed was on fire! I was boiling alive!” She got an unexpected roasting, so to speak. The next day at breakfast the journalist voiced her concern to a waitress. “That’ll be the witches,” came the nonchalant reply. “They used to burn them at the stake on Castlehill right outside.” And presumably it wasn’t the effects of a wee dram nightcap.

The Witchery Edinburgh Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Witchery Edinburgh Secret Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Witchery Edinburgh Tapestry © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Witchery Edinburgh Starter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Our Easter Thursday lunch in the restaurant turns out to be a slightly less steamy but still hot affair. Dr Johnson and his biographer James Boswell used to lunch there. Well if it’s good enough for Sam and Jamie… The schlep up the Royal 1.6 Kilometres past winding wynds and claustrophobic closes is so worth it. Four enigmatic fanlights peering over Johnston Terrace way below are all that hint at what lies beneath. We’ve arrived. Physically and metaphorically. Bewitchingly charming certainly, hauntingly beautiful definitely, ghoul free thankfully. Think Hunderby without Dorothy. Or Northanger Abbey goes to town. Owner James Thomson, Scotland’s best (known) hotelier and restaurateur, is evidently a follower of the Donatella Versace school of thought: “Less isn’t more. Less is just less.” An eclectic dose of ecclesiastical remnants, gothic salvage and Jacobean antiques is healthily apt for this 16th century building. A pulpit above, a trellised obelisk to love, a flag there, a tapestry where? Candlesticks galore carry flickering flattering light across a Secret Garden the envy of Frances Hodgson.

The Witchery Edinburgh Main © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The interior may flurry with wild abandon but the service and setting mercifully don’t. Our Milanese waiter makes sure of the former. Tradition takes care of the latter. Linen tablecloths, phew. Round plates (slates are for roofs), double phew. Unheated pudding (a dish best served cold), triple phew. After a bubbly reception (thank you Mark), the feast unfolds. Palate seducing grilled sardines followed by lemon sole with brown shrimp butter preceding chocolate orange marquise with espresso jelly raise spirits further. The huggermugger harum scarum of a prowlish ghoulish night owlish postprandial prance on the mansard tiles of Edinburgh’s Auld Toun awaits. The only way is down (hill).

The Witchery Edinburgh Pudding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley