In the House of the Architect: Thoughts on Sir John Soane and the Art of Biography


Susan Watson

What should I make of this? ‘Make’ in the sense of ‘make sense’, rather than ‘make up’ or ‘construct’, those words that bring fabrication and invention trailing behind them.This is the house of someone who designed and constructed. He purchased these three houses one by one, combined them, made something of them.

What can I make of this? Orts, scraps and fragments.[1]  The phrase comes into the room. The echo hangs in the air.

The breakfast parlour: a space of movement and transit, like a dining room in a smart station hotel. A round table covered with a starched white cloth, wicker chairs. Pale yellow walls and transparent veilings that flicker in the faint breeze from a half open window. And the ceiling decorated with a trellis pattern on a pale green ground, painted garlands of leaves, designed to provide the illusion of shelter and careful flowering. A brick wall outside.

A library.Walls in red with bands of dark green, leather armchairs of the kind that one imagines in smoking rooms in clubs that women are not allowed to enter, panels of lighter green brocade.Volumes in pale brown calf. An army of upright chairs ranged formally around a long table, chairs with important wooden backs, chairs in which one sits up alert and straight to deliver significant pronouncements or to declare war.

In Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, Cam Ramsay remembers her father’s library:

In a kind of trance she would take a book from the shelf and stand there, watching her father write, so equally, so neatly from one side of the page to another, with a little cough now and then, or something said briefly to the other old gentleman opposite. And she thought, standing there with her book open, here one could let whatever one thought expand like a leaf in water; and if it did well here, among the old gentlemen smoking and The Times crackling, then it was right.[2]

But these books are shut away behind glass doors and a gigantic pale brown thistle has been placed deliberately and precisely on the seat of each of the chairs, so that there is nowhere to rest.

A courtyard full of statues, busts and monuments and at the heart of it, below stairs, the sarcophagus, the tomb. A house as mausoleum.Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, wrote a family history that he called a Mausoleum Book. He tells his story from the position of grief, but at a crucial moment (the death of his second wife Julia), he retreats behind words that muffle: my beloved angel sinking quietly into the arms of death.[3]

There are other ways of telling this death (this very same death):

My father staggered from the bedroom as we came. I stretched out my arms to stop him, but he brushed past me, crying out something I could not catch; distraught. And George led me in to kiss my mother, who had just died.[4] 

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out.They remained empty.][5]

In a courtyard, near the sarcophagus, there is a tombstone engraved with the words: ‘Alas! Poor Fanny.’ This may be a deliberate echo of ‘Alas! Poor Yorick’, not only in Hamlet but in Tristram Shandy, that essay in the telling of a life that begins with forgetting to wind up the clock, digresses, digresses, then ends with an admission that the whole narrative is nothing but a wild goose chase. But Fanny was a real dog and her portrait is on the wall in the circular parlour, not the place of transit described above, but a different and more interesting room entirely, an interior room lit mainly by mirrors and a skylight of complicated and intricate stained glass, meaning that the light does not strike anything directly, but seeps in at second hand. The little black and tan terrier bitch is lying couchant. She has soft eyes and a rounded jaw, and is posed beside Greek columns, as if she were still alive. And the room is full of mirrors and Fanny is unmistakeably the ancestor of the two Manchester Terriers who live, and lie, curled into black ovals, on the rug beside me as I write. And of another small black and tan dog, the dog of my childhood, now more than thirty years dead.

Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, shows Katherine Hilbery and her mother engaged in writing the official biography of Katherine’s grandfather, an eminent Victorian poet. Each morning at ten, Katherine sits down opposite her mother at a table heaped with bundles of old letters and well supplied with pencils, scissors, bottles of gum, india-rubber bands, large envelopes, and other appliances for the manufacture of books. She is depressed by their lack of progress.

They found, to begin with, a great variety of very imposing paragraphs with which the biography was to open; many of these, it is true, were unfinished, and resembled triumphal arches standing upon one leg, but, as Mrs. Hilbery observed, they could be patched up in ten minutes, if she gave her mind to it. Next, there was an account of the ancient home of the Alardyces, or rather, of spring in Suffolk, which was very beautifully written, although not essential to the story. However, Katharine had put together a string of names and dates, so that the poet was capably brought into the world, and his ninth year was reached without further mishap...After this, it seemed to Katharine that the book became a wild dance of will-o'-the-wisps, without form or continuity, without coherence even, or any attempt to make a narrative. Here were twenty pages upon her grandfather's taste in hats, an essay upon contemporary china, a long account of a summer day's expedition into the country, when they had missed their train, together with fragmentary visions of all sorts of famous men and women, which seemed to be partly imaginary and partly authentic. There were, moreover, thousands of letters, and a mass of faithful recollections contributed by old friends, which had grown yellow now in their envelopes, but must be placed somewhere, or their feelings would be hurt.[6]

There is a tyranny in ordinary narrative, a straight line moving from birth to death: ‘She did this; and then she did that’; Monday follows Tuesday. Getting from lunch to dinner. The overwhelming urge to catalogue everything, to miss nothing, to pile detail upon detail. The cabinets and drawers throughout the house are numbered and lettered: an attempt at an index.

Shall I simply list each room, with its contents? What shall I leave out? Should there be no attempt at shaping? Woolf and her circle wanted to move away from the ‘Life and Letters’ in three large volumes, an exhausting monumental memoir in which nothing could be said that might possibly offend the widow or cast a bad light on the subject. Everywhere here one is conscious of the light coming in.

In the sarcophagus room and the enclosed courtyard next to it the sunlight is concentrated by the placing of the skylights to pick out and heighten the bleached tones of the statues and busts, so that it seems unnaturally strong, perhaps to reproduce the midday light in Greece or in some other very southern classical country. Or an idea of it. I have never been to Greece. I have travelled in Italy, but I have never been to Rome.

Natural light is always coming in, from somewhere, but it is managed light, framed by tall windows, carefully strained through skylights or stained glass, reflected by the numerous mirrors, which all the time give me back, not a sense of Sir John Soane, or even of his house, but unwelcome glimpses of myself.

Biography will enlarge its scope by hanging up looking glasses at odd corners. And yet from all this diversity it will bring out, not a riot of confusion, but a richer unity.[7]

The blanched sarcophagus room reminds me of walking through the nave of Chester Cathedral in winter, under the tattered flags, that year when I was reading Woolf and having ideas about the influence of the ‘new biography’ on her later novels. Chester Cathedral smelled of attics in the rain. That was the year I discovered Lytton Strachey, almost stumbled and fell right over him, Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, a complete reaction, the traditional ingredients sweated down so that crystals formed in the pan. Those curving sentences with their clauses and sub-clauses and their rhythms. The broth has been salted and spiced, it has been set in aspic in a mould shaped like a castle, perhaps, or like a stylised salmon with all its scales exaggerated.

Here, Woolf is writing about E.M. Forster, but what she has written might also apply to Strachey:

Yet if there is one gift more essential to a novelist than any other it is the power of combination – the single vision. The success of the masterpieces seems to lie not so much in their freedom from faults – indeed we tolerate the grossest errors in them all – but in the immense persuasiveness of a mind which has completely mastered its perspective.[8]

Soane placed a ‘pasticcio’ [9] in the courtyard: a central column, a gracefully proportioned object, something like a fountain. It seems to have been deliberately positioned in such a way that it is precisely framed by the window, and the window has another frame in the form of a stained glass border. Landscape artists of the Romantic period (approximately Soane’s period) often used a claude glass.[10] A claude glass frames a scene and is also a kind of mirror; it distorts the characteristics of the landscape, making them smaller, mellowing the light and the tonal quality of lakes and mountains. It exaggerates the salient features and it blurs the fine detail. To draw from a claude glass, the artist has to stand with his or her back to whatever is being sketched.

Yet, in spite of a frame, the perspective can still change. There is nothing to prevent an observer from moving around the room, even from going upstairs, and looking down on the pasticcio in the centre of the courtyard. A different way of framing. To take a more contemporary issue in biography: would I be pro-Sylvia, would I be pro-Ted, or might I see that marriage and its breakdown as something like two combustible substances combined in a mortar and pestle; the creation of a compound with magical properties far beyond the sum of its parts, but which, after a while, becomes unstable and gives off a terrible gas?[11] Alternatively, what might I make of Woolf’s own marriage? Would I subscribe to the generally accepted version in which, without Leonard’s calming and nurturing, if occasionally restrictive influence, we would not have had Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando or The Waves? Or could I hold a more subversive view? For example, that Leonard subtly undermined her, stifled and muffled her with milk, obstructed her writing on the pretext that she had a headache and might otherwise go mad, again.[12] Or would I even want to construct a ‘what-if?’ story, an alternative life in which she married Lytton Strachey, or Clive Bell or Vita Sackville-West, or never married at all, like Lily Briscoe? Woolf liked to ask ‘what if?’ What if her father had lived to be ninety-six, as people do? What if Mrs Dalloway had married Peter? What if Shakespeare had had a sister?

She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that...she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.[13]

In attempting to shape a collection of random facts and objects, the greatest enemy seems to be a hunger to make any shape and to force as much significance as possible into it. I am on the first floor now. The drawing room is all bright yellow, heightened banana yellow, a not unpleasant shade, especially after the heavy inwardness of many of the downstairs rooms. Yellow, the colour of indulgent novels, Van Gogh, madmen and the midday sun. There were theories of colour in the eighteenth century, apparently. Should I read Goethe, Newton? Or is it more significant that this was Mrs Soane’s room, and that yellow was a fashionable shade at the time this room was originally decorated and furnished? Suddenly there is a window out into the world, a window in a loggia. I am in Lincoln’s Inn, in June, in the first decade of the twenty first century. I can see the stretch of grass where, some years ago, we watched a very unusual open air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is drizzling faintly. A family walk their two bull terriers along the street.

A house is made of rooms. A room is a container, like a stanza in a poem, it is a thing in its own right, but it leads to somewhere else, or so it should. There are many imposing archways between rooms that appear to lead somewhere. There are compass points in every room, but I have been told that these were deliberately set in the wrong direction. And the house seems larger than I think it really is. If this is a labyrinth, where is the devouring monster? And what form will it take?

In the basement, beside the yard that holds the little dog’s grave, is the room known as the Monk’s Parlour. Soane invented a monk named Padre Giovanni as a kind of imaginary alter ego. This room was furnished in a Gothic style as if for the fictional monk. As you descend the stairs to reach the parlour (the word derived from ‘parler’, a place for conversation, or perhaps confession) you get a glimpse of mortality: at the turn of the stairs behind a window you start at the sight of a skeleton, literally a skeleton in a cupboard, standing, grinning out, the cupboard door ajar. The tomb has been called the everlasting dwelling. A house for the dead.

The Monk’s Parlour itself is furnished with stuffed armchairs covered in red brocade arranged around a circular table covered in a red cloth, like a Victorian tea table. It gives the impression of community where there was probably none, calling to mind those tables at which the young Virginia Stephen, with her sister Vanessa, was trained in the Victorian game of manners: I see myself handing plates of buns to shy young men and asking them, not directly and simply about their poems and their novels, but whether they like cream as well as sugar.[14]

But on the table, in the centre, is a skull. (Is this another reference to Hamlet?Or perhaps to Tristram Shandy?) The ceiling presses down and it is ornamented with the heavy coils of serpents. Inevitably, the parlour has an aperture for a skylight, but it would be a very long climb up, to reach the light. It feels as if Soane himself was preoccupied with mourning. The house is filled with objects that commemorate the people and the things that he loved, (or might have loved, or would have loved): his dog, his difficult sons, his wife, his work, the art of Hogarth and of Canaletto, the idea of Padre Giovanni, the plays and poems of William Shakespeare.

To commemorate is to keep in memory by celebration. When she attempted to write her own memoirs, Virginia Woolf observed that every day includes much more non-being than being.

...although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding.[15]

Woolf goes on to describe what she called ‘moments of being’: when something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. There was a puddle in her path; she could not step across the puddle and the whole world became unreal. Many of these moments are shocks of some kind, but one of them is different:

I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.[16]

There are two places in the house that seem to represent some kind of positive moment of being. Thinking of Woolf and the modernist novel, I reach automatically for the word epiphany although perhaps they do not quite deserve that description. Yet these places in the house could be seen to stand for the sometimes edifying and uplifting moments that happen in most people’s lives. Soane probably knew such moments, although, if so, they have almost certainly never been recorded.

A yellow study and dressing room. The relief of coming into the light. Suddenly there is clarity and normality, tigerish red tulips in a vase [17] and dark wood, but also an elegant small sink; here is furniture for doing real things and this is natural daylight, a simple large Georgian window. Here is his desk. He sat at this desk to make his architectural sketches. The drawers and cupboards are harmoniously proportioned, economically fitted in to the available space, polished, shining, numbered, ornamented with brass handles. The wood has warmth and complexity in its grain. It was once alive.

Towards the end of her life Woolf herself embarked on some attempts to give a shape to collections of facts and objects, in particular, when, at the request of her friends, she wrote the first biography of Roger Fry, the Bloomsbury painter and art critic. It was drudgery and at times despair; as with the Victorian memoirs, there were crucial episodes in Fry’s private life that she had to skirt around and shade, from delicacy and consideration. Perhaps she succeeded in commemorating the essential essence of Fry the man; his character; the reasons why others were drawn to him. Here she writes an appreciation of his book on Cezanne:

But though the analysis is minute, it is not a dissection. Rather it is the bringing together from chaos and disorder of the parts that are necessary to the whole. When at last the apple, the kitchen table, and the bread-knife have come together, it is felt to be a victory for the human spirit over matter. The milk-jug and the ginger-jar are transformed.[18]

Half way up a flight of stairs from the ground floor to the first floor: a small alcove holding a very recognisable bust of Shakespeare, the domed bald forehead, the slashed doublet, the image caricatured on a thousand school textbook editions and on the covers of popular literary criticism. Yet also a pale powder blue ceiling: the sky; stone cherub heads appearing to float there, an idea of cathedrals in Venice or Florence. And a sunflower in the centre, representing the sun itself, blue rosy fingers and an image with petals like a dahlia breaking through. A dahlia is a member of the chrysanthemum family, and therefore a flower associated with death and mourning. But here is an attempt at depicting heaven.


[1] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (London: Hogarth Press, 1941), p. 251.

[2] Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), p. 291.

[3] Leslie Stephen, Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 96-97.

[4] Virginia Woolf, ‘Sketch of the Past’ in Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (London: Pimlico 2002), p. 102.

[5] Woolf, To The Lighthouse pp. 199-200.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Night and Day (London: Hogarth Press, 1930), pp. 36-38.

[7] Virginia Woolf: ‘The Art of Biography’, in The Death of the Moth (London: Hogarth Press, 1942), p.125.

[8] Virginia Woolf: ‘The Novels of E.M. Forster’, in The Death of the Moth, pp. 106-107.

[9] A pasticcio (or pastiche) can also refer to an opera or any work (including a literary work) made up of fragments or portions of other artists’ works, often adapted by the composer or artist.

[10] Sir John Soane was born in 1753 and died in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. See also Michael Donaghy, ‘Upon a Claude Glass’ in his Collected Poems.

[11] Most of the early biographies of Plath were ‘pro-Sylvia’; a notable exception was Anne Stevenson’s controversial Bitter Fame.

[12] For example, Roger Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf.

[13] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), p 15.

[14] Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in Moments of Being, ed. Schulkind (London: Triad/Panther, 1978), p.151. See also ‘Sketch of the Past’ in the 2002 edition of Moments of Being, p. 152; the wording here is slightly different and fits the context less well. Woolf continues: ‘On the other hand, the surface manner allows one to slip in things that would be inaudible if one marched straight up and spoke out.’

[15] Woolf, 'A Sketch of the Past' pp. 83-84.

[16] Woolf, 'A Sketch of the Past' pp. 84.

[17] See also Sylvia Plath, ‘Tulips’, in her Collected Poems. Plath likens the red tulips beside her hospital bed to dangerous and exotic animals. In contrast, the striped tulips in Soane’s study seemed to be something lively and beautiful existing in the present moment.

[18] Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry (London: Peregrine Books, 1979), p. 248.