Crude Hints

Publication Date
February 21, 2019

In the summer of 1812, Sir John Soane had recently purchased the second of three townhouses in the center of London and demolished it. Staring at these ruins, Soane composed “Crude Hints Towards an History of My House at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.” Pretending to be a scholar of antiquities writing from the future, Soane imagined the house as an archaeological site where visitors would come to admire his ruined collection and speculate on its history. “Whilst by some this place has been looked on as a Temple,” the antiquary writes, “others have supposed it to have been the residence of some Magician, & in support of this opinion they speak of a large statue placed in the centre of one of the Chapels, which they say might have been this very necromancer changed into Marble.”[1]

“Crude Hints” is full of these purposeful misreadings of his own collection—in this case his copy of the Apollo Belvedere—as Soane momentarily cedes control of his own architecture, imagining a nightmare scenario in which his carefully applied neoclassical motifs are completely misread by future generations. Soane seems to revel in this deception at first, perhaps imagining that it could never truly happen, though the narrative quickly spirals out of control as he uses the pretense of the antiquary to defend himself in personal disputes with his colleagues at the Royal Academy, to arbitrate an ongoing legal feud over his design for the building’s facade, and to lament his failure in having his sons follow him in to architecture. The piece ends with the dramatic image of the pen dropping from the antiquary’s hand, as the subject becomes “too gloomy to be pursued.” [2] Soane rewrites this ending three times, each an incredibly close variation of the last, as though writing it just once did not provide enough catharsis.

By this point, Soane had written several books and delivered a great many lectures on the subject of architecture, but “Crude Hints” stands apart. In “Crude Hints,” Soane’s neurosis over his own legacy is on full display. Scholars of Soane have done excellent work parsing the text and cataloging its many obscure references and physical analogs in the building [3]. However, little has been said about the relation of the text as a whole to Soane’s building practice, and to the light it sheds on the famously odd building that Soane constructed in the image of this famously odd prose.

Soane is known to history as a neoclassical architect, and the contents of his collection at the House and Museum would certainly seem to evidence that claim. The root of the collection grew out of Soane’s experience on the Grand Tour, casts and copies brought back with him to verify, in the most scientific way he could imagine, the measurements of antiquity. As the scholarly narrator of “Crude Hints” impressively infers, “some have supposed that [the collection] might have been for the advancement of Architectural knowledge by making the young Students in that noble & useful Art who had no means of visiting Greece and Italy some better ideas of ancient Works than would be conveyed thro [sic] : the medium of drawings or prints.” [4] For Soane, the “advancement of Architectural knowledge” lay precisely in these fragments, carried forward by the next generation with him as their interpreter and guide.

When Soane wrote “Crude Hints” the impact of the Grand Tour on young architects was still strongly felt, though by the time Soane finished the House and Museum, he would have begun to see a shift away from that mode of architectural education as rail travel made the journey more widely accessible and, eventually, less influential. Thus it has been noted that even in his own time, Soane seemed to exist between eras, lecturing to nineteenth-century audiences, but always aligning himself with the eighteenth-century thinkers from his formative years [5]. This in-betweenness manifested itself in Soane’s architectural practice, creating an apparent struggle between his penchant for “a set of universal axioms that would guarantee permanently correct proportions” and “the contingency of our preferences conditioned… by accidents of climate and inherited assumptions.” [6]

While the former—the principles of antiquity and their proper application—drove Soane’s architectural production in the public sphere, the latter force—the accidents of climate such as his wife’s untimely passing, his sons’ disappointing endeavors, and his professional squabbles—greatly influenced the production of the House and Museum. In “Crude Hints” the two come to a head, battling for Soane’s attention, ultimately revealing how intertwined they became in that building. While at the beginning of the piece Soane has a strong grasp on his own narrative frame—using the character of the antiquarian to make precise attacks and defenses of his architecture—by the end the mask has slipped nearly off as the weight of this defense becomes too great. This very same struggle can be read in the building itself, where the fragments of Soane’s collection that were brought in to tell his students the story of antiquity instead tell the story of Soane—the people that he loved and reviled and the milestones that made up his career.

In this way, “Crude Hints” explains the lasting effect of the House and Museum. Soane expected his collection to be remembered for its veracity and therefore its contribution to architectural study, but in reality it’s remembered precisely because he let his wave of emotions color the objects and muddy the story. While Soane may have seen “Crude Hints” as a defense of his neoclassical legacy, the piece itself might have a far more lasting and relevant legacy as a unique piece of architectural catharsis that seeped into the foundations of the House and Museum that first summer and never left.

  1. Sir John Soane, Crude Hints Towards An History of My House In Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd., 2015), 22.
  2. Ibid., 32.
  3. Helen Dorey, “Introduction,” Crude Hints Towards An History of My House In Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd., 2015), 1–16.
  4. Soane, Crude Hints, 27.
  5. David Watkin, “Introduction,” in Sir John Soane: the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5.
  6. Ibid., 13.
Publication Date
February 21, 2019
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