Even when compared with other branches of Classical archaeology, during Sir John Soane’s lifetime the study of vases was in a state of disorganised infancy. Possibly more than any other set of objects in the House and Museum, the vases were rightly considered by Soane as purely decorative adjuncts to the general visual effect of the LIBRARY and DINING ROOM. This is borne out by the novel positions which the vases occupy in these two rooms and in the lantern of the BREAKFAST ROOM adjoining. In some cases only a corner of their outlines are visible to anyone standing at ordinary height in the rooms, and in all instances their locations are impossible from the point of view of students of their painted subject matter! Two notable exceptions to this rule are the Cawdor Vase and the Apulian Barrel Amphora formerly in the well known collection of Sir Henry Englefield; these treasures are displayed at eye level where at least the main scene is able to be studied. The Cawdor Vase was quite celebrated in its time, and its purchase by Soane called for a prominent location first in the Front Parlour of Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, and later, when moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in various locations around the Museum before ending up placed centrally on the Dining Room windowsill where it remains today. The Trustees placed a glass dome over it in 1866 but today it is once again displayed without a cover. The Englefield Vase remains in the position it occupied in Soane’s day and beneath the cover which he placed over it – a fine brass-bound glass case.
The remainder of the vases, with the exception of several of the Bell Kraters, were not considered of any special merit in the age when Soane acquired them. These pieces were placed along the tops of the bookcases in the Library, and the smaller examples were reserved for the Egyptian-Gothic brackets and the recessed niches which form a distinctive signature element of Soane’s interior decoration. When necessary to fill a bracket or complete a row, Wedgwood reproductions or creations after the antique were substituted for the genuine article. As the viewer can see, in any case the effect is, if anything, enhanced because the former are more colourful and in perfect condition. The minor vases, cups, and dish shapes without painted figures fulfil their decorative function on the brackets with less concern to the archaeologist because most that needs to be said about these can be seen by the interested from below.
The groups into which the vases are divided speak for the composition of the collection and for the type of secondary material which Soane was able to acquire for his purposes at auction sales – notably the James Clark Sale at Christie’s, 9 June 1802, where he acquired 40 of the 61 vases in the collection. Where these can be identified from the meagre sale catalogue descriptions this is noted under “Provenance”. With the exception of the Cawdor and Englefield vases, the remainder were acquired in odd lots from various London dealers and at smaller auction sales.
The vases are grouped by place of origin as follows
East Greek Sixth-Fifth Century B.C.
Attic (Athens, etc.) Later Sixth-Earlier Fourth Century B.C.
Corinthian Fifth-Earlier Fourth Century B.C.
South Italian Earlier Fourth Century B.C.
Apulian Mid to Late Fourth Century B.C.
Campanian Fourth Century B.C.
Gnathia Style (South Italian-Apulian) Late Fourth Century B.C.
Hellenistic and Roman ware of a miscellaneous and secondary nature.