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image XP44

Black and white photograph

Museum number: XP44

Curatorial note

Peter Kai Thornton was Curator of Sir John Soane's Museum from 1984, when he succeeded Sir John Summerson, until his retirement in 1995. This photograph, which he described as a holiday snapshot, was the one he chose to give to the Museum on his retirement for framing and hanging with other photographs of past Curators in the Research Library. It was taken by his second wife, Lena Spindler.

The following appreciation of Peter was published in the Annual Report 2006-07:

Peter Kai Thornton 1925-2007

The death of Peter Thornton on 8 February 2007 was the end of an era and a particular sadness to those of us who had the privilege of working under him at the Soane, where he was Curator from 1984 to 1995. Peter was Keeper of Furniture and Woodwork at the V&A from 1966 until 1984 and it was his reputation as a pioneer in the field of authentic restoration and his deep knowledge of the history of interior decoration which led to his appointment as Curator of the Soane. He was the first non-architect to be appointed (Soane’s original 1833 Act of Parliament stipulated that the Curator must be an Architect) and he took over from Sir John Summerson, who had been Curator since 1945. This was in itself a watershed moment. Peter took over a Museum with only a Curator, an Assistant Curator and a Librarian besides the resident ‘Porter’ and the warding staff. Business was conducted using one manual type-writer and there was no photocopier. The last in a long line of Museum cats, ‘Puss’, ate her meals from a saucer in the Curator’s office loggia and regularly clambered in and out of Soane’s architectural models. By the time Peter retired in 1995 the Soane had been transformed.

Sir John Summerson himself recognised that his successor would need to turn his attention urgently to the state of the building and it was above all to the presentation of the interiors and the refurbishment of the fabric that Peter devoted his ten year Curatorship. Much of what we take for granted about the Museum today we owe to Peter.

Peter was faced early in his Curatorship with a devastating survey of the building fabric revealing that £2 million was required for its repair. Undaunted, he set about raising money with the assistance of the Museum’s first fundraiser, Julian Spicer. £1 million was donated by MEPC Plc, still the Museum’s largest ever non-Government donor, and the matching million was by the then Office of Arts and Libraries (later the DNH and now the Department for Culture). The five-year restoration of the external fabric, in a complex series of phases, beginning with the lower rear roofs and continuing with the façade, rear façade and high level roofs, was completed on time and on budget. Alongside this work, Peter gradually restored the interiors, studying Soane’s watercolour views, the early inventories and early photographs to work out where furniture and objects had originally been placed. I was fortunate enough to be employed as his research assistant and it was an inspirational experience. Among the rooms he meticulously restored, re-creating their original colour schemes and arrangements of objects, were the two drawing rooms, the Picture Room, the Study and Dressing Room (which he narrowed to their original dimensions), the Dome area, the New Picture Room, the Ante Room and the No. 12 Breakfast Room. He brought in Dr. Ian Bristow as historic paint advisor and Julian Harrap as the Museum’s Architect – both still working for the Museum. All this required more money and Peter set up a new charitable company, Sir John Soane’s Museum Society, to assist with this. He also welcomed the setting up of Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, based in New York, on the initiative of Cynthia Spurdle and Suzie Magee (he was especially delighted when the foundation helped with two of his favourite projects, the restoration of the New Picture Room and the No. 12 Breakfast Room).

Alongside the restoration work, Peter also took a keen interest in the cataloguing of the Museum’s collections. He initiated the process of drawing together all the many historic catalogues of the Museum’s works of art into one new ‘inventory’, incorporating all previous writing on each object. He also set up the system of ‘Room Boxes’, which we use on an almost daily basis, recording each interior from the time of its construction to the present day. These tasks may sound routine but they were not – a whole team of volunteers spent many years assembling and mounting historic photographs, photocopying old inventories etc., under the direction of Margaret Richardson, whom Peter appointed as his Assistant Curator in 1985 and who succeeded him (much to his delight) as Curator in 1995. Under Peter and Margaret’s direction the 30,000 drawings in the Research Library were microfilmed and a ‘Concise Catalogue’ compiled (today mounted on the Museum’s website). Peter was especially interested in Renaissance interior decoration (he published an acclaimed book on the subject in 1992) and he brought Dr. Lynda Fairbairn to the Museum to catalogue its holdings of Renaissance drawings – the first in-depth cataloguing project completed at the Soane. He wanted to ensure that the public had access to the treasures of Soane’s drawings collection and insisted that the five-year restoration of the fabric should include the creation of a brand new purpose-built gallery for temporary exhibitions, designed by Eva Jiricna. His retirement coincided with the opening of the first exhibition in the ‘Soane Gallery’, ‘Connoisseur and Collector’, highlights from Soane’s drawing collection. It was Peter’s own idea to display the drawings in a variety of coloured wash mounts, rather like 18th century album pages, specially made for the occasion by Sarah Spicer. The Soane Gallery has since held more than 40 exhibitions and it is hard now to imagine the Museum without this lively aspect of its activities.

Peter recognised that the Museum needed a paper conservator and brought in Margaret Schuelein. He saw that regular filling and re-touching of minor damage in the Museum was essential and perceived that the best person to do this would be an artist who knew about colours – as a result Jane Bush joined the Museum. She had to rise to a series of challenging artistic tasks such as graining (which she had never done before and taught herself from a 19th century treatise!) – always given with Peter’s characteristic accompanying phrase ‘I know you can do it – don’t let me down!’. He had boundless confidence in all of us and this was wonderfully inspiring and encouraging. He showed great generosity in allowing each of us to explore aspects of the Museum which fascinated us and was rewarded with almost total loyalty.

No-one who worked for Peter will ever forget him. His enthusiasm was boundless and the distinctive two rings on the front doorbell which signalled his arrival in the Museum usually unleashed a whirlwind of activity. One might find him discussing the intricacies of how to recreate a curtain fringe with Ros Hartman of Elizabeth Eaton Limited; in the Dome area urging on the team from Holden Conservation in the cleaning of casts or up the vertiginous external scaffolding with Julian Harrap. His slightly battered felt hat, raised punctiliously to colleagues when encountered in the street, was always on the old wash-stand outside his office door - a memorable hallmark of his presence.

Peter was much loved by his colleagues at the Soane and also much admired. It is very fitting that his last visit to the Museum, in 2005 when he came with Lena for a private lunch to mark Margaret Richardson’s retirement, was to see the newly installed re-creation of Soane’s pasticcio in the Monument Court, a project he had long wished to see carried out.

Helen Dorey, Deputy Director and Inspectress


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