Sir John Soane described the arrangements in his museum as ‘studies for my mind’. Deputy director and inspectress Helen Dorey tracks the movement of The Snake in the Grass through the museum, and what this reveals about Soane’s relationship with the painting and its frame.
Today, The Snake in the Grass hangs in the Library-Dining Room as it has for nearly 200 years. However, during Sir John Soane’s lifetime, as the house and collection expanded and transformed into a museum, the location of the painting changed several times, with each location a statement of the painting’s importance to Soane.
When the painting arrived in 1821, in the frame for which we’re crowdfunding today, it was hung in Soane’s first Picture Room, at the back of Soane’s first house, No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Originally built as Soane’s architectural office (1792), the space had later been a study (1808-09) before being walled off in 1812 for the use of the new tenant of No 12. In 1819 Soane decided to take it back and rebuild it as a purpose-built gallery for his growing collection of paintings.
This watercolour shows the room in 1822. Soane’s newly acquired Reynolds is hanging over the doorway leading through to the Dome area at the back of the museum, surrounded by capricci of Roman ruins by Charles-Louis Clérisseau. We know from other views that it faced a large painting by Canaletto, the Riva degli Schiavoni, hanging at the other end of the room.
On the wall to the left you can see the eight paintings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress series, and the two pictures by JMW Turner that Soane owned (an oil painting of the Val D’Aosta and a watercolour of Kirkstall Abbey) were also in the room, along with The Italian Count by Henry Fuseli.
Apart from Canaletto all these artists were closely associated with the promotion of British art and artists, especially Reynolds, who was the first president of the Royal Academy, where Soane, Turner and Fuseli all held Professorships.
In 1824 Soane built a second new Picture Room at the back of No 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a third house he had bought probably specifically with this in mind. He had just purchased (1823) another series of four much larger Hogarth paintings, An Election, and had nowhere to hang them. The second Picture Room (the one visitors still see today) was very different to the first – its walls open up as ‘movable planes,’ like large cupboard doors, to reveal the pictures hung within. This system enabled three layers of pictures to be hung on each wall.
In this Picture Room, The Snake in the Grass was hung in a place of honour: above the large Canaletto, over the fireplace and opposite the entrance door. It faced a portrait of the painter Sir Francis Bourgeois RA, the founder of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public art gallery in Britain (and incidentally, designed by Soane). Entering the room, Soane’s visitors would see not only his two great Hogarth series, but also the Reynolds, a reminder of that artist’s pre-eminent place in the history of British painting as the first president of the Royal Academy, whose ‘Discourses’ (his lectures) were already celebrated.
The Reynolds remained in the Picture Room until 1829-30 when it was moved to the Library-Dining Room to its present position, hanging opposite the portrait of Soane himself. The installation of these two paintings was cleverly designed, with each set into a framework of mirrors, ensuring that neither picture can be seen without seeing the other reflected alongside.
These two paintings displaced a pair of imaginative watercolours by Joseph Michael Gandy depicting Soane’s built and unbuilt designs. The watercolours’ presence had placed Soane’s architectural career centre-stage during the 1820s, but their move to the Picture Room, where they still hang today, and their replacement by The Snake in the Grass and Soane’s portrait reflected a shift away from Soane’s professional life and towards his legacy.
The final positioning of The Snake in the Grass was an important step on the road towards the passing of the private Soane Museum Act of Parliament in 1833, by which Soane enshrined his house as a legacy to the nation, to be preserved as it was at the time of his death.
Today, the frame of The Snake in the Grass is in desperate need of repair. Please donate today, and help us save the frame of one of Sir John Soane’s most treasured paintings.