Death and mortality were recurring themes in the life and work of renowned Regency architect Sir John Soane. The catalyst for Soane’s long-held professional interest in architecture of mausolea, funerary sculpture and monuments was his personal tragedy of losing his beloved wife of thirty-one years, Eliza Soane. Eliza died on 22 November 1815, and despite living a further twenty-two years after her death Soane never entirely recovered from his loss. Earlier in 1815 she had begun to suffer from serious ill health, and although the cause of her death was from a burst gall bladder, the events which ran up to this deeply affected Soane.
The couple’s wayward younger son George, emerging enraged from the King’s Bench Prison where they had allowed him to be confined for debt in hope of modifying his behaviour, published two anonymous articles in The Champion newspaper on 10th and 24th September 1815 viciously attacking his father’s architecture. Having been shown these articles Eliza exclaimed: ‘These are George’s doings – he has given me my death blow – I shall never hold my head up again.’ Tragically six weeks later Eliza passed away. Distraught, Soane blamed her death entirely on George. He framed the two offending articles and hung them in the house with a pendant which read ‘Death blows given by George Soane 10th & 24th Sept. 1815’.
Eliza was buried on 1st December in St Giles-in-the-Fields at St Pancras, her coffin having lain in state in the Library at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields by candlelit the previous night, covered with a pall with ostrich feathers. The months following the funeral a grief-stricken Soane began to design a monument to her memory. This monument became the Soane family tomb, which still exists in the burial ground of St Pancras and is where both his wife and Soane himself are buried. This monument is known for being the inspiration for the famous red telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Key architectural features on the tomb are the domed canopy; an architectural feature Soane utilised in much of his work, and the unexpected ouroboros (a snake swallowing its own tail) symbolising eternity which is wrapped around the drum-like terminal on top of the canopy.
To learn more about Eliza Soane and Sir John Soane’s relationship with funerary architecture visit Sir John Soane’s Museum’s current exhibition ‘Death and Memory: Soane and the Architecture of Legacy’, which coincides with the 200th anniversary of Eliza Soane’s death, open now until 26th March 2016. Here are some sneak peeks of some of the items on display, some of which have never before been seen by the general public.