Death, where is thy art?

Tombs may seem a morbid subject, but to the architect Sir John Soane they were a source of undying fascination and inspiration. By Jonathan Glancey

And death shall have no dominion... Of all the arts, architecture is the one that endures longest beyond the grave. In fact, it is the very graves architects have designed that speak to us most directly, if not always clearly, from ancient civilisations. The tombs of Ur, the pyramids of the Pharaohs, the mausolea of Greece and Rome, are masterpieces that have not only survived thousands of years of change and decay, but have also shaped the imagination of romantic architects and their patrons ever since.

The great age of tomb building in Britain (excluding that of the ancient British who gave us the haunting barrows and tumuli that dot our landscape) was the turnover from the 18th to the 19th century. By the 1770s, the archaeological glories of Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor had been sketched, measured, catalogued and widely published.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837), one of England's finest architects, was one of many contemporaries for whom ancient tombs and rites of death were a source of fascination and inspiration. The architecture of death featured in virtually every building he designed, from the Bank of England (since largely rebuilt) to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

In fact, Dulwich, Britain's first public picture gallery, doubles up as a mausoleum for its founders, Noel Desenfans (and his wife, Margaret) and Sir Francis Bourgeois. This picturesque stock-brick tomb is a resting place for art collectors and their paintings. Unlike the pyramids or the tombs of Ur, in which the artistic treasures of those who commissioned them were sealed for ever (grave-robbers permitting) and thus removed from public gaze, the Claudes and Poussins, Rembrandts and Watteaus at Dulwich were, and remain, on daily display for the edification and delight of those who make their way to this south-east London suburb.

The Picture Gallery is currently host to "Soane and Death", a small but diverting exhibition which investigates and celebrates Soane's attitude to death and the architecture he thought should frame its sacred mysteries.

The subject of the exhibition is a well-trodden one: Sir John has been turned over in his grave many times and notably so since the publication of the late Sir John Summerson's memorable essay "Sir John Soane and the Furniture of Death", published in the Architectural Review (March 1978). Summerson was for many years the curator of Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Soane's museum, an architectural jack-in-the-box, was the architect's home; its basement houses a funereal sham Gothic "Monk's Parlour", as well as the sarcophagus of Seti I, excavated in the Valley of the Kings, and of "Poor Fanny", the architect's dog.

Summerson said most of what needs to be said on the subject and the current exhibition is really little more than the Architectural Review essay brought to life, although the handsome exhibition catalogue contains excellent essays by, among other fervid Soanies, David Watkin, Clare Gittings and Giles Waterfield. outgoing director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Summerson explained that what appealed most to Soane and his contemporaries was the fact that tombs needed no light and air and, as such, they were the perfect vehicle for the romantic classical architectural imagination. Designed for the dead, they required nothing in the way of what, today, we would call "services": no windows, no ventilation, no heating, no plumbing. They could thus be formed from the basic building blocks of the language of classical architecture, such as the cylinder or pyramid. Here was a first-rate opportunity for Regency architects to indulge with impunity in the re-creation, if on a generally smaller scale, of the great classical mausolea (the word comes from the magnificent and hugely influential tomb of Mausolos at Halicarnassus; you can see a miniature version of this, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, standing in as the steeple of St George's Church, Bloomsbury, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, perhaps the greatest English architect of all and a man as gloomy in demeanour as the old John Soane).

Although Soane could be a miserable old soul, there is little evidence, in designing for and with death, that his passion was somehow unhealthy or macabre. Most of the knowledge that Renaissance (and Regency) architects had of the ancient world they so revered was drawn straight from the grave. Other than temples and the romantic ruins of the Colosseum in Rome, precious little civic or domestic architecture had been passed down for study in 18th-century England. Or, at least, much ancient architecture had yet to be discovered.

Given this, and the fact that, until the founding of the National Health Service in the mid-20th century, death reaped a promiscuous harvest in every home, it is little surprise that Soane's thoughts turned on death. The death of his wife, on whom he was dependent, in 1815 did, however, nurture a temperament that his friend Burdon described as "too eager for stormy weather".

There is, perhaps, a marked turning-point in Soane's attitude towards death at the time of his wife's demise. Before this event, which sank him into a prolonged gloom, Soane's exploration of mortality was, if a highly imaginative one, little different in character and substance from that of his contemporaries. Death was no more and no less than one of the toys architects of his generation played with, as they indulged what Sir Edwin Lutyens was later to call "the high game of architecture".

Whereas the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a delightful and quixotic exploration of the nature of art and death - despite its maudlin gloom, the actual mausoleum inside the gallery, which forms the centrepiece of the current exhibition, is theatrical and more entertaining than daunting - Soane's own tomb in St Pancras churchyard, London, confronts death directly: "Here lies one", the monument's inscription should read, "whose name was writ in stone."

Soane's tomb is modest. Although it stands in central London's streaming roar, the architect imagined it occupying an isolated and poetic landscape. His assistants, Henry Parke and George Basevi (who later went on to design much of Belgravia), painted a large number of watercolours depicting progress on the construction of the tomb, as Soane himself found real death hard to stare in the face. Even so, he was proud of the design, exhibiting two views of it at the Royal Academy's spring exhibition. His wife, Eliza, was re-buried in the completed tomb in 1823; his elder son, John, in 1827; and Soane himself 10 years later. There was no room in the tomb for his younger son, George, whom Soane believed had, by his disloyalty, caused Eliza's death.

Today the tomb stands in more or less sad isolation in a churchyard frequented far more by drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes than by tweedy architectural historians. The tomb was damaged by the arrival of the Midland Railway, with its soot and pounding piston-strokes, in 1867. It was repaired in 1919. At about this time, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (architect of Liverpool Cathedral among many 20th- century masterpieces) adopted its distinctive profile for the design of his famous red telephone kiosks for the GPO. Through this little act of remembrance, Scott brought Soane back from the grave (the Victorians, especially Gothic Revivalists, had wanted to keep him there).

While Soane's body lies mouldering beside the Midland mainline station, his spirit still sings to us in the museum that bears his name and in the ever accelerating publications and exhibitions devoted to his exquisite, if haunting, work.

n 'Soane and Death' is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (0181- 693 5254), to 12 May

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