London’s most magical and eccentric house reopens to the public this week

In the basement kitchen of Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – which reopens this week – there’s a mummified whippet half stuck into a bread roll. It’s not an insight into the domestic catering arrangements of one of England’s greatest architects. It’s part of a show called ‘Degrees of Truth’ by artist duo Langlands & Bell. Their works are scattered throughout the house, which now has a one-way system in place. The exhibition closed along with the museum back in March. Langlands & Bell found the grisly dried-out pooch on a stall in Brick Lane market and incorporated it into their work. You sort of picture the dog alive and in the house, snoozing in front of the range. Then you realise that this connection is momentary – the dog and the house have interacted for the first and only time in their respective histories.

Sir John Soane's Museum
Photograph: Chris Waywell

Sir John Soane’s London house makes time work like this. It’s full of dead things. I mean, full. The architect, who was responsible for the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor and many other significant commissions, made his own home a strange and delirious living museum of the dead, with a ‘sepulchral chamber’ in the cellar containing a sarcophagus, statues of the dead, paintings of ruins. It’s not remotely morbid, or gloomy or gothic. It’s an artful balance of light and shade, colour and blackness: a dreamspace. 

Sir John Soane’s Museum
Photograph: Chris Waywell

Actually, Langlands & Bell are a weirdly good fit for Sir John Soane’s Museum. Their preoccupations – how spaces and buildings both reflect and define the individual, how power structures and physical structures overlap, how history and the future exist in the present – chime with many of Soane’s ideas: an avant-garde architect in thrall to a partly illusory classical past. To see their chilly deconstructions of Apple’s California headquarters, or a video fly-through of the house in which Osama Bin Laden was killed is to make you question again the role of architecture in our lives and understanding of the world. Aren’t these places – essentially – also tombs? Tombs of data, of political ideology, of identity?

Langlands & Bell, ‘Marseille, Cité Radieuse’ (2001), installation view. Sir John Soane’s Museum
Langlands & Bell, ‘Marseille, Cité Radieuse’ (2001), installation view. Photo: Chris Waywell

These ideas proliferate in a space like Sir John Soane’s Museum, where rules are inverted, where light pours through unseen skylights and the world retreats. If you need a place to get your messed-up 2020 head back together (or if you’ve now accepted that it’s permanently f–cked), I’d advise taking yourself along there pronto.

Langlands & Bell: ‘Degrees of Truth’ is at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, Thu Oct 1-Jan 3 2021. Free. The museum is open in Oct Thu-Sat and Nov Wed-Sun. Free timed entry tickets must be booked in advance.

Find more great things to do this week.

After more magic? ‘The Nutcracker’ is returning for Christmas.

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