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image XF75
Deep narrow bookcase, XF75, English, unknown maker, probably designed by Sir John Soane, c.1835, mahogany with one side made of deal planks; brass locks and keyhole escutcheons; modern brocade door lining, ©Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Photograph: Hugh Kelly

Deep narrow bookcase, English, unknown maker, probably designed by Sir John Soane, c.1835

Mahogany with one side made of deal planks; glazed side doors; brass locks and keyhole escutcheons; modern brocade door lining

Height: 160.5cm
Width: 152cm
Depth: 39cm

Museum number: XF75

Curatorial note

With glazed doors at both ends; inscriptions above both doors, framed in cock beads; inscribed at one end: Description de L’Égypte / Préface Historique et Avertissement / Histoire Naturelle ... Tom I – II (II bis) / État Moderne…Tom I – II / Planches / Antiquites…Tom I – II. Above the framed inscription is another: Déscription d’un Pave en Mosaique decouvert dans l’ancienne ville d’Italica and below is a white letter G (the Soane cupboard reference). The door at the other end of the cupboard is inscribed Loggia di Rafaele del Vaticano III Tom / Description De L’Égypte / Antiquites…Tom I – II / Cartes Topographiques / État Moderne…Tom I – II and is labelled with a painted H; door H is lined with green brocade (c.1950s); both doors have brass diamond keyhole escutcheons, as used elsewhere on the Soane furniture and original hand-made brass locks; one side of the cupboard is made of deal planks; the mirror nailed to one long side of the cupboard is not related to it.1

On 12 September 1835, two days after his eighty-second birthday, Sir John Soane recorded in his diary ‘Bought the great French Egyptian work’.2 This was a copy of the monumental Description de l’Egypte by Dominique Vivant-Denon (1747-1825), in 20 volumes, including three elephant folio volumes of plates, published between 1809 and 1828.3 His immediate challenge was how to house such large volumes and, indeed, where to do so in a house in which space was already at a premium. Two years earlier he had acquired a large collection of Adam drawings in fifty-four volumes and housed them in cupboards in the Colonnade. He now decided to place his latest bibliographical treasure nearby. The two bookcases, this one and XF244. were commissioned in response to this challenge and made especially to fit the limited space available. The solution ensured that two of the great treasures of Soane’s collection, the Adam volumes and the Denon Description, could be housed in the heart of his museum, where the presence of such rarities in the collection could be advertised prominently to visitors by the inscriptions on the cupboards and bookcases which held them.4 Both acquisitions were made at a time shortly after the passing of the Soane Museum Act of Parliament in 1833 when Soane was concentrating on the development of the arrangements in the Museum with a view to enhancing its prestige as his legacy to the nation.

The plan of the Ground floor in Soane’s 1835 Description shows the two bookcases in situ, slotted in behind the columns at the east end of the Colonnade. this one was designed to slot in to the north of the passageway and this explains the substitution of cheaper deal for solid mahogany on the right-hand side and back, where it would not be visible to those passing along the Colonnade (the deal back would have been visible to anyone going down the adjacent staircase to the basement, however). The larger bookcase, this one, fitted into the space to the south of the passageway and has a deal panelled back – hidden because it is against the wall. The simple, elegant and practical design of these two bookcases, panelled out with the panels flush in a typical Soanean way, reflects Soane’s own aesthetic very strongly.

The gold painted inscriptions on the two bookcases are original and were carried out by Soane’s regular painter and decorator William Watson in 1835-36.5

Soane could have looked for inspiration to the designs for Egyptian-style bookcases published by Percier and Fontaine in Recueil de décorations intérieures (Paris, 1801, reissued in 1812) or in George Smith’s 1808 Collection of Designs for Household Furniture, but instead chose to house his copy of Denon’s Description in very plain and understated bookcases.6 In his Royal Academy lectures Soane expressed admiration for the ‘grandeur and magnitude’ of Egyptian architecture, which he called ‘wonderful proof of the perseverance and industry of the Egyptians and also of the sublimity of their ideas,’ but criticised the inappropriate contemporary application of Egyptian style in domestic and commercial contexts.7

The Denon cupboards were displaced from their original positions at the east end of the Colonnade when the route through the Study and Dressing Room and the small staircase down the basement were widened in 1890-91 during the Curatorship of James Wild.

1 It is part of a door and therefore does not appear in this catalogue. Its original position in the house is not known.
2 SM Archive SNB 12 September 1835.
3 Exh. cat.Hooked on Books, Sir John Soane’s Museum, 2004, p.17. Soane’s set is 20 volumes bound in 24 with the ‘Grand-format’ plates from all sections bound up separately in three elephant folios (see SM Library Catalogue).
4 A. Bednarski, Holding Egypt. Tracing the Reception of the Description de l’Egypte in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain, London, 2005; Bednarski makes it clear that the evidence of subscription lists and information about sales of the work show that it reached the hands of only a small number of people in Britain – chiefly learned institutions and some individuals. Its great size, which made it difficult to consult, may have deterred buyers.
5 SM Archive XV.I.K.4.16: Watson bill for Jan 17 1835-October 6 1836 includes item ‘writing in Gold on Bookcases in Museum, Library, Model Room &c.’.
6 See C. Monkhouse ‘Temples for Tomes: The Egyptian Folio Cabinet in the Providence Athenaeum’, Furniture History, 26 (1990), pp.157-67.
7 This is surely an implied criticism of Thomas Hope.

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