CULTURE

Soane Museum ? home to a piece of the Erechtheion

Not all missing fragments of ancient Greek temples or sculpture on public display in London are to be found in the British Museum. A short distance away, in the district of Holborn, stands the former private residence of Sir John Soane, who some 200 years ago was the chief architect of the Bank of England, a professor at the Royal Academy and an avid collector of antiquities. Among Soane?s collection of marble sculptural fragments is at least one piece of a carved female figure identified as belonging to the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis.

Soane?s obsessive collecting was not limited to stone or bronze works of art from ancient Greece and Rome. He also drew together a huge variety of other European or Asian objects of ancient, medieval and early modern date, including salvaged architectural elements, pottery, paintings, furniture, books, stained glass, timepieces, jewelry, arms, and 300 Chinese tiles, a porcelain dinner service and a 1721 printed scroll concerning divination. Soane displayed many of these artifacts throughout his home ? both for his own pleasure and the benefit of his architecture students, who came to study and sketch. The house, now called Sir John Soane?s Museum, remains much as it was when Soane died in 1837. Present-day visitors can make their way through winding rooms and narrow corridors lined from floor to ceiling with fascinating objects either acquired from dealers or salvaged from building sites by Soane himself. In addition to the Dining Room-Library, Study and Picture Room, areas of the house with less conventional names reflective of Soane?s own eccentric character include the Monk?s Parlor, the Crypt and the Colonnade. The extraordinary atmosphere inside Soane?s ornate personal museum was captured in engravings published by the Illustrated London News in 1864.

Most impressive among the museum?s displays -? aside from a gigantic alabaster sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, which required workmen to knock a hole in the back wall of the house before it could be brought in ?- may be Soane?s vast collection of architectural and sculptural fragments and casts. Many of these hang on the walls or stand on shelves, pedestals or furniture in the Colonnade, an amazing, multilevel space at the back of Soane?s house lit by natural light that filters in through a domed skylight. Placed inconspicuously on one wooden cabinet rests the headless torso of a female figure about half a meter high, carved in white marble. As one peers at the label, the realization dawns that here, in the back room of a pre-Victorian English townhouse, one has stumbled upon an important piece of 5th-century BC sculpture that originally adorned the Erechtheion in ancient Athens. The Erechtheion?s Ionic frieze, from which this young female (a Nike figure?) appears to have come, consisted of white Pentelic marble sculptures attached to a dark background of Eleusinian stone still visible on the building. The subject of the frieze has long remained a mystery, since so many of its elements have disappeared -? probably into private collections such as Soane?s. Even in its fragmentary state, the Erechtheion torso is remarkable for its skillful, elegant carving. Only a small flattened area at the back was left to attach the figure smoothly to the Erechtheion?s entablature.

How many other identifiable pieces of Classical Greek sculpture or architecture missing from the Acropolis still exist in obscure, forgotten collections? One has to wonder, as further perusal of marble fragments hanging in Soane?s hallways reveals several additional examples of finely carved male and female faces, heads and other body parts that also seem to possess the quiet grace of the 5th-century BC Greek sculptural style.