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  • image XF374
XF374, Argand lamp, English, unknown maker, early nineteenth century, bronze with glass. ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photograph: Hugh Kelly.

Argand lamp, English, unknown maker, early nineteenth century

Bronze with glass

Height: 50.5cm
Diameter (base): 13.2cm

Museum number: XF374

Curatorial note

Of columnar form with a single arm supporting the glass chimney; on a circular base with a border of waterleaf and dart moulding; urn-shaped oil reservoir topped by a finial and a ring of gadrooning to the stand; the lamp originally oil but now converted to electricity with replacement frosted glass chimney.

The principal form of lighting in the main rooms of Soane’s house was oil lamps, fuelled by spermaceti or sperm-whale oil, which were stored in one of the basement closets next to the Kitchen and brought by servants to where they were needed. Candles were also used to supplement the oil lamps. Two bronzed plaster candlesticks are visible on the mantelpiece in the Dining Room in a view of the Dining Room and Library by J M Gandy (P86 detail), but with their candleholders seemingly filled with paper spills, presumably for lighting lamps.1 This is the only surviving original lamp in the house. In recent years it has been in the Study.2 Peter Thornton had this lamp converted to electricity by Dernier and Hamlyn in 1991.

The mechanism of the Argand burner, patented in England by a Swiss, Ami Argand (1750-1803), in 1784, achieved a more complete burning of the lamp oil and an Argand lamp gave about 10 times the light of an earlier lamp of the same size, as well as a cleaner flame. Argand found that purified spermaceti oil was optimal. Soane also had a patent ‘sinumbra’ lamp, so called because the oil reservoir was positioned so that the shadow was rendered imperceptible, a French ring lamp and two ‘Rumford’ Reading lamps – all illustrative of the drive for improved lighting technology in the early nineteenth century.3 No bill can be definitely identified as being for this lamp but, for example, on 3 January 1826 Soane paid Mr. Collins (probably William Collins) ‘for a bronze reading lamp with a ground shade £3.13.6’.4 Collins also seems to have provided spare replacement ‘glasses’ (chimneys) for Soane’s lamps in the 1830s.6

1 By the end of Soane’s life these candlesticks were in the Bathroom on the second floor. Candlesticks are listed in various locations in the 1837 Furniture and Fittings inventory, see Appendix 2.
2 It is shown on a table in the Library in a photograph of 1920 but not in earlier photographs.
3 S. Palmer, The Soanes at Home, London, 1997, pp.15-18.
4 SM Archive: Office Day Book 28 February 1827 records this payment made in the previous year.
5 Office Day Book 1 February 1834 ‘Paid Mr. Collins for Lamps & glasses from 8 Dec 1830 to 3 Aug 1833 £4.12.9’. In March 1825 Soane hired 108 lamps, candelabra and chandeliers from Collins to illuminate the Museum for three parties ‘by lamplight’ in celebration of the installation of the sarcophagus of Seti I, see Helen Dorey ‘Sir John Soane’s Acquisition of the Sarcophagus of Seti I’ in The Georgian Group Journal, 1991, pp. 26-35.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk