The trouble with writing a blog is I hold off on visiting places till I have time to write about the experience. I want to capture the moments of discovery fresh, particularly if it is my first visit. I want to soak it all up and take my time.
I wish I had started my blog when I first visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Perhaps not quite the hidden treasure it once was it is still one of the most remarkable places to visit in London. My Dad first took me many years ago, and thinking back to that day, I recall a sense of a secret place, going up to the front door, knocking and being invited into an inner sanctum. The door opened onto a secret London world of art and architecture, sculpture and history. Perhaps it is not a surprise I went on to study Greek and Roman history when tantalised by snippets of other cultures.
For those who haven’t been, how do you describe the Sir John Soane’s Museum? Do you even try? Do you keep the secret and let the visitors eyes grow wide once they step through the threshold?
I took my husband for his first visit a few years ago. I asked him about his impressions for this blog, he just said ‘Bonkers’, so perhaps one word is enough. But for somewhere that is so strange and unusual I struggle to understand why I worked across the square at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 10 minutes from Soane’s house, for nearly six years and never visited. Maybe I felt I never had the time, so many things to see, how can you immerse yourself in another world and fit that into your lunch hour?
Since beginning this blog in 2012 I haven’t written about the Sir John Soane’s Museum. I think it is because it is a special place, I want to do it justice. A couple of months ago I thought I would just pop in, enough was enough, I didn’t have long but I would dip back into this weird world. I walked from room to room, I let my eyes glide over objects and things. It was busy, I observed school groups, I lingered in dark corners. I found myself alone in the picture room, Hogarth and Canaletto paintings held me magnetized. So often I walk into a large gallery space with large paintings, but here is an intimate, intense experience. It felt good to be back but I still didn’t know where I would begin a blog or how to end it.
Then a few weeks back I was invited to a press preview of Marc Quinn’s new exhibition – Drawn from Life at the museum. So now no more excuses. Marc Quinn may be a familiar name after his fourth plinth sculpture of a pregnant Alison Lapper back in 2005. His work has often courted controversy yet it has found a temporary home at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Being at the museum early in the morning is an absolute treat, having coffee and a pastry in Soane’s Library I feel like I am being welcomed into another time. I am allowed to take photos, another simple joy.
Bruce Boucher, museum director since 2016, welcomes us and talks of Quinn’s work. 12 new sculptures placed around the museum on show for the first time. Made in collaboration with Quinn’s partner, the dancer Jenny Bastet, they are fragmentary sculptures, artist and muse, embracing, arms entwined, holding, containing, protecting. Two bodies becoming one piece caught in a moment, not only in time but also a moment of physical intimacy.
Boucher talks of Soane’s collecting habits, his own assembly of contemporary works. Quinn’s sculptures are an extension of that legacy, an offering to Soane’s cult of the fragment. As you wander round the museum that is what you get, fragments of this, sections of that, casts and replicas, and authentic pieces. Snippets of this culture, echoes of another. You wonder about the whole, the bigger picture. Where did this piece originally come from? How did it get here? It reminds me of the work of Lindsay Allen, chasing fragments and stories of Persepolis across the globe.
There are three sculptures to view in the room with us as we sip coffee. I find myself taking pictures of bottoms and hands. I can’t help myself I just love the detail. The veins and tiny imperfections in the casting process has given them a fleshy realism.
I have been to two exhibitions now where the work is scattered through the whole museum. At the Foundling Museum, Cornelia Parker littered the rooms with ‘Found’ art and objects and here I go on a treasure hunt from room to room for Quinn’s work. I love the way it makes you look afresh at spaces. For me his work sits much better in the rooms already full of sculpture, lit beautifully, playfully peeking out amongst kindred objects. Rooms untouched for 180 years as Sir John Soane’s requested, but years of legacy benefit from having a contemporary injection.
I don’t normally read reviews before I write a blog, but a few for this exhibition have caught my eye. They make for interesting reading. Everyone will no doubt have a different opinion. Mine no more or less valid than the next person. But what I do love is that it makes me think of the process. I think about how Marc Quinn has achieved the sculptures, the exhibition on the 1st floor helps answer this. The pink moulds used to cast the sculptures look weird and alien. It makes me think how the casts were made in Soane’s day, it makes me think about the Greek and Roman originals. It makes me think about a friend of mine, a stonemason who created some exceptional work during his studies in historic carving. It makes me look and think, and look again, and get lost in that moment.
Ultimately as I leave I realise I need to visit this house in fragments, I was scared of the whole. It was too big, too much to get my head and words around. Now the barrier is broken, I want moments of immersion at Sir John Soane’s house, home and museum again and again.
I want the quiet contemplation of the press view, a walk in the catacombs as the light fails and my shadows deepen. I want bright sunlight glinting through coloured glass, I want to peer into Sety I tomb and imagine Soane and his guests filling the space, laughter and talking echoing all around.
Quinn’s fragmentary work has shown me how I want to consume and be in this space that is like no other. I am not going to leave it so long again, the words won’t be so halting and I have Marc Quinn to thank for that.
Marc Quinn – Drawn from life is free and on at the Sir John Soane’s Museum from 28 March – 23 September 2017 http://www.soane.org/whats-on
Lindsay Allen – Persepolitan – personal blog https://persepolitan.wordpress.com/author/vastarchive/
Review – Is this high art, or just mid-life wobble? Telegraph, Culture, 28 March 2017 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/high-art-just-mid-life-wobble-marc-quinn-drawn-life-sir-john/