Rituals & Chores: The House seen from Below

Prof. Paul Coldwell’s collaborative project with The John Soane Museum

Over the next year I will be visiting and researching in the Sir John Soane’s Museum with the intention of producing new, site-specific work to be shown in the museum in 2019. This blog will trace the development of the project from its outset through to completion.  The Sir John Soane’s Museum, located in Lincoln Inn Fields in central London is the historic house, museum and library of the distinguished 19th century architect Sir John Soane. At Soane’s request, the house has been left untouched since his death – almost 180 years ago.

For this project I will be focusing on the kitchens and life below stairs. This develops from previous projects where I have used specific collections and archives as the starting point for practice-based research including Re-Imaging Scott-Objects & Journeys, (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge and most recently Setting Memory (Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna) and Temporarily Accessioned-Freud’s Coat Revisited (Freud Museum London).


Visited the museum again today. On a cold crispy London morning on the street, I was pleased that there was no need to wait outside, so straight into the warmth of the museum. Whenever I go to the Soane museum I feel as if I’ve just discovered it, it’s so low key that you can almost walk past without noticing. Once in, you realize that it’s a well known secret and there’s lots of giving way to let people pass, particularly in some of the narrow passages, as they in turn, explore. I took my sketch book as a means to capture a few thoughts. Drawing serves as a way of looking for longer and thinking about my relationship to a place.  But most importantly it leaves a record that I can revisit, each drawing an aide memoire. These drawings are very much for personal reference and I rarely exhibit them, but are so important when I’m developing a project. The Soane museum encourages the viewer to look upwards, with little treasures half hidden on high shelves as well as below. I was pleased to discover a small folding table concealed in its own recess hidden in the base of the sculpture of Apollo, Belvedere which I was told had been designed by Soane,

the same ingenuity that designed the folding screens in the Picture Gallery. Here I began to think more about Gandy’s watercolour  ‘Public and Private Buildings Executed by Sir John Soane between 1780 and 1815’ http://collections.soane.org/object-p87 as a model  that I might use in developing my idea for the dresser in the kitchen. John Bridges

(Curatorial Assistant) kindly sent me a key to the watercolour listing all the buildings represented, 108 in total, a visual cv.for Soane. Again, I was struck by the overall sense of melancholia in the watercolour, it being like a cavern of dreams or a mausoleum. I was also interested in the way every space in the picture serves to support a model or a picture. Of particular interest for me are the models of buildings including Kelshall Rectory, Shotesham and Lees Court Stables which are on a high shelf just below the vaulted ceiling.

Throughout the museum there are examples of these high shelves with models on them and I like the way they determine the view. following the thought of melancholia, I went from the museum to the exhibition Melancholia-A Sebald Variation, a small but telling exhibition in the Inigo Rooms, King’s College which included a wonderful set of photographic works by Anselm Kiefer whose work so connects to Piranesi, a favorite artist of Soane and well represented through prints and drawings in the museum.

Since my exhibition will focus on the kitchens, it was a happy coincidence that also on show at the Courtauld Institute is an exhibition of Soutine’s portraits of cooks, waiters and bellboys. While Soutine focuses on the portraits of those below stairs or in serving roles, my project will try to conjure their presence through objects and artifacts.

16/10/2017 –

When I visited the museum this week, I had completely overlooked that Adam Nathaniel Furman’s project The Roman Singularity would be on display. http://www.soane.org/whats-on/exhibitions/adam-nathaniel-furman-roman-singularity

Since his work is being shown in the kitchens, the spaces that I will be using for my exhibition, it proved to be both enjoyable and very useful. Its always interesting to see how other artists respond and make use of spaces, and here was a vibrant, almost pop art response. Overall It put me in mind of the early screen-prints of Eduardo Paolozzi and his contemporary, Joe Tilson. I particularly liked the display of sweetly coloured ceramics in the form of architectural fragments, such a striking contrast to the overall monochrome of the Soane collection.

When I am developing a project, I find that it is often a combination of some clear initial starting points while other aspects are intentionally unfixed, kept in the air like the proverbial spinning plates. In the case of working with collections, I find that over the course of many visits ideas either strengthen or slowly evaporate. In this respect I find that I have already been returning to the built-in dresser in the kitchen as a site to explore and a space of displaying some plates that I am considering making.

The dresser has traditionally been the place of domestic display, the place where the best china was put on view. It can be seen as the ‘below stairs’ equivalent of the picture gallery, with the decorative plates providing views into other worlds, the exotic orient as personified by the blue willow pattern laid out on the ceramic ware. I’ve started to think about how I can bring some of the imagery from ‘above stairs’ into the basement as decoration on plates on the dresser and how this might become an installation.  The watercolour by Joseph Michael Gandy ‘Public and Private Buildings Executed by Sir John Soane between 1780 and 1815’ http://collections.soane.org/object-p87 might provide a useful reference in the way that it both serves as a dramatic picture as well as a catalogue of Soane’s achievements. It also reminds me of a scene in Orson Wells’ 1941 film Citizen Kane where in the mansion, Xanadu, Kane assembles his vast collection of treasures, sculptures and works of Art.

A postcard of Gandy’s watercolour is now on my studio wall along with a set of 1940’s postcards of monuments of Rome that I came across on the internet. All part of gathering and shifting through ideas.

by Paul Coldwell