Half-Wrecked

Mary Beard

  • John Soane: An Accidental Romantic by Gillian Darley
    Yale, 358 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 300 08165 0
  • John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light by Margaret Richardson and Mary-Anne Stevens
    Royal Academy, 302 pp, £45.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 300 08195 2
  • Sir John Soane and the Country Estate by Ptolemy Dean
    Ashgate, 204 pp, £37.50, October 1999, ISBN 1 84014 293 6

Tombs do not rank high in the history of modern architecture. Only two grave monuments in London have been designated as Grade One Listed Buildings: the icon of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, and the aggressively idiosyncratic construction that is the memorial to the family of Sir John Soane (‘architect to the Bank of England &c &c &c’, as the inscription proclaims) in the burial ground next to Old St Pancras Church – the romantic spot where Shelley first caught sight of Mary Godwin, but now part of some lugubrious gardens sandwiched between the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, the mainline railway and St Pancras Coroner’s Court. ‘Listing’ has done little to protect either monument. Predictably perhaps, Marx’s tomb has suffered over the years from the hammers and spray guns of both enemies and friends. But Soane’s has fared even worse; not, I imagine, at the hands of desperate architectural ideologues, but from run-of-the-mill vandals, attracted by its sheer oddity. When I visited it in January, it was overrun by brambles; much of its balustrading had been kicked away; its four white marble columns had long since been heaved off (the nearby railway line their likely destination); and the temporary metal fence surrounding it was more of an eyesore than a protection.

Soane designed the monument in 1816, originally as a memorial to his wife Eliza. Above the brick burial vault and within a small precinct bounded by a heavy, classicising balustrade, he placed a tall canopy (almost three metres high) of rough Portland stone, supported on plain square columns and topped by one of his characteristic shallow domes. Inside this canopy was another – a striking visual contrast to the first, in gleaming Carrara marble, with a classical pediment resting on the four Ionic columns. Under the pediment stood a large block of plain marble. Eliza was commemorated on one face (in a torrent of sickly verses which Soane apparently chose in preference to a passage from Horace); Soane himself and his elder son were later commemorated on two of the others. The fourth face was for ever left starkly blank, as if to advertise the absence of George Soane, the younger son, whose vicious newspaper attacks on his father’s architecture – and character – were often said to have hastened Eliza’s end. (It is a measure of Soane’s narcissistic vindictiveness that for several years he hung framed copies of George’s articles in his drawing-room, giving them the title ‘Death Blows’ in gilt lettering.)

This extraordinary monument has attracted extravagant, almost mystical admiration from architectural historians: ‘a metaphor of the temporal within the eternal’, according to John Summerson; an embodiment of the ‘tension between enticement and resistance, openness and enclosure ... a mesmerising presence’, according to Christopher Woodward (writing in John Soane, Architect, the lavish catalogue of the recent Royal Academy exhibition of Soane’s work). More mundanely, it is regularly identified as the source of one of the most familiar (and also much vandalised) symbols of mid-20th-century British culture: Giles Gilbert Scott’s famous ‘K2’ telephone kiosk. There is, in fact, no direct evidence (beyond a tenuous similarity of shape) that Scott actually used the tomb as his model. But such is the power of the Soane legend that his inspiration is taken for granted; and the red kiosk is illustrated time and again in studies of Soane, as proud proof of his legacy to modern Britain.

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