There are many alluring aspects to travel, but the chance to experience places much older than American cities falls near the top of the list. We fly to far-flung locations such as Macchu Picchu, the Acropolis, or the Pyramids, to fill our senses with the sands and stones of history. Often these monuments are the best-preserved records of how people lived millennia ago – speaking eloquently of a civilization’s highest aspirations and cultural identity.

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The Erechtheion, Acropolis (by author)

In recent years, Western culture has evinced a strong bias for “the latest and greatest”– and often an object is seen as outdated and irrelevant after a very short time. This attitude has also prevailed in art and architecture since the 20th century, when many emphasized a break with traditional forms and meaning. In contrast, periods like the Renaissance used new ideas and methods to build upon past achievements, striving to emulate or even surpass the great minds of Greece and Rome.

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Elgin Marbles on display in the British Museum

18th and 19th-century England was also a time of historical rediscoveries, with the upper class amassing antiquities from far and wide. Many of the most significant artifacts in the British Museum came to England during this time, including the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles. Another area of the Museum displays precious objects from Enlightenment collections, including sculpture, vases, and other decorative arts. Seen at the time as lessons in history and beauty, these collections served to safeguard the past as well as forming the current generation of artists and intellectuals.

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2nd C. Roman Vase with Swan neck handles (British Museum); Palm Leaf Column of Ramesses II, ca. 1250 BC (by author)

Of these Enlightenment-era collectors, the story of architect Sir John Soane and his London townhouse (No. 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Central London) stands out as a unique and fascinating example. A bricklayer’s son, the young Soane embarked on a Grand Tour through the Mediterranean, visiting and sketching the great monuments of antiquity. He would later go on to become one of the leading architects of Georgian England, with historical precedents strongly influencing his neoclassical designs.

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Arch of Constantine, Rome

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Sir John Soane’s Pitzhanger Manor (Ealing Council)

Soane’s townhouse (now the Soane Museum) is an architectural masterpiece, and its many collections have remained essentially as he left them at his death in 1837. His regard for the past became evident to me this summer, while on a fellowship at the museum provided by the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation. Based out of  New York, the Foundation gives two generous awards each year, allowing graduate students to pursue research related to Sir John Soane and his work. Working in the museum library, students have access to a vast archive of drawings, paintings, and letters, an amazing collection left intact for posterity.

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The Museum’s Picture Room: containing over 80 works of art (Soane Museum)

The Dome Room (by author); urns and architectural fragments in the Dome Room

After my morning commute on the crowded London tube, I’d take in a few minutes of serene and fresh air next to the museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Then, entering the museum at No. 12, the narrow winding stairs leading up (then down) to the research library in No. 14. As I passed carved bas-reliefs, ethereal watercolor renderings, conservators and staff at work, it was as though entering a fantastic human hive of carefully shaped spaces and beautiful objects. But the biggest thrill was sitting down to look at wax-sealed letters addressed to Soane and original drawings by Soane and his illustrator J. M. Gandy. Delineating everything from full-scale details to large perspective renderings, these two-hundred year-old pen and ink strokes captivate and inspire.

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields in early evening

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Gandy’s unfinished watercolor of the library at Cricket Lodge (Soane Museum)

The Soane Museum was not just his family home: it was a testing ground for his architectural ideas, and an incredible gallery of painting, sculpture, and ornament. With most rooms lit from numerous skylights, it was powerful to explore the Museum at various times of day, in changing light and mood – and once a month, large numbers gather in the evening for a candlelit visit. An added bonus to my trip was visiting Soane’s own private apartments, including his architectural model room – which had just opened after an extensive and detailed restoration.

J.M.W. Turner’s Kirkstall Abbey, which hangs in the private apartments (Soane Museum); Soane’s Model Room, used to illustrate his Royal Academy lectures (Soane Museum)

 

In looking at the work and collections of Sir John Soane, a quote by his near-contemporary G.K. Chesterton comes to mind: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

 

Today, there is a growing trend that recognizes and seeks out the value of tradition. The reasons may vary – a sense of artistry and human touch less common in today’s world, the beauty of a weathered patina evoking natural imperfection, or the reassuring character of things made slowly and perfected over generations. These forms of old are precious reminders of our humanity, with power to root us in the achievements of our ancestors  and add meaning to places in which we live.

 

To find more information or read other memories from the Soane Traveling Fellowship program, visit www.SoaneFoundation.com/fellowship.html