Part 1: BACK TO THE PAST AT SIR JOHN SOANE'S MUSEUM
London — Sir John Soane's Museum in the Holborn district wrapped up a 20-year facelift last spring. The goal of this monumental (£6 million) restoration project has not been to drag the illustrious Regency Era architect's private residence into the 21st century but instead to take it back to the way it looked in 1837, the year Soane died.
This isn't a museum director's marketing gimmick. In fact, the restoration fulfills legislation that Soane helped get enacted in his declining years. Soane bequeathed his house to his country, and the 1833 Act of Parliament requires that it be kept "as nearly as possible" in the condition in which he left it. Until recently, parts of the house have been needed for administrative uses, but now those functions have been moved next door, allowing, finally, the fulfilment of Soane's terms.
Visitors are welcome to stroll around on their own to view his astonishing collection of painting and sculpture, but, I strongly recommend you catch one of the scheduled guided tours by the likes of exhibitions curator Dr. Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, who rotates with several museum colleagues in this role on Saturdays.
John Soan was born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer. He showed a precocious talent for art and architecture, says Kierkuc-Bielinski, and it helped that he married well, soon prospering from his wife's inheritance, adding the "e" to his surname to distance himself from his humble beginnings and quickly establishing himself as one of Britain's foremost architects.
Soane's creative epiphany occurred early when, on a scholarship, he spent two years on the Grand Tour of Italy. He returned to England a changed young man, and the collections in the museum reflect the trip's impact on him. Even the yellow glass skylights, says Kierkuc-Bielinski, were installed "to bathe the collection in the glow of a beautiful summer's afternoon in the Eternal City." Once the Napoleonic Wars impeded travel to the Continent, Soane made it his mission to collect and display artefacts that would constitute a mini-Grand Tour without ever having to leave London.
While running his thriving architecture practice from a large room on the first floor, Soane also taught at the Royal Academy and encouraged his students to peruse his home collection. Indeed, even the public at large was welcome to drop in for a look-see. (The museum today charges no admission fee, but please consider dropping a fiver into the collection box as you exit the gift shop.)
Until the top floor is opened there are four levels to investigate. (Don't miss the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I in the basement.) You could easily spend an hour just in the Painting Room alone. With a footprint of barely 25 square metres, its walls are absolutely chock-a-block with canvases by then-contemporary artists like Canaletto, which you can scrutinize from inches away. One wall turns out to be two ingeniously fitted doors that, periodically, a custodian opens to reveal the original eight paintings by William Hogarth known as "The Rake's Progress." It is a remarkable legacy.
For more information on Sir John Soane's Museum, visit its website at www.soane.org.
For information on London go to the Visit London website at www.visitlondon.com.
Part 2: GIN GIN—HERE'S TO CITY'S FIRST DISTILLERY IN 200 YEARS
London — Dusk is falling as we gather on a quiet residential street in Hammersmith, a group of strangers milling about in front of a row of small houses and garages. We glance at each other, wondering if we could possibly be in the right place. Then a door swings open and we enter a world fragrant with the herbal bite of juniper and the sharp tang of spirits.
Welcome to Sipsmith, the first distillery to open in London in nearly 200 years.
It launched in March 2009, tucked into a small brick garage that was for a while the office of the whisky writer Michael Jackson. Until the spring of 2014 this was home to Prudence, a beautiful, bespoke 300-litre copper still from Germany, as well as her younger sister Patience. Now, Sipsmith has moved to a bigger space in neighbouring Chiswick, where a new still, Constance, has joined the other two.
Tonight, though, we're in the tiny original distillery, taking part in a tour that has become a popular part of social life in London, reflective of the renaissance not just of cocktail culture, but of the city's historic passion for gin.
That passion dates back to the 17th century, when Dutch-born William, Prince of Orange, took the English throne and brought with him a juniper-flavoured grain spirit called genever, the Netherlands' precursor to English gin.
His subjects loved it as much as he did, and by the 18th century England, and especially London, was in the throes of what became known as the "Gin Craze." By 1730 the capital city boasted some 7,000 dram shops and Britons were drinking an average 10 litres of "Mother's Ruin" per person per year, Londoners five times that much.
Something clearly had to be done, and so began the series of Gin Acts and tax increases. However, it was likely the dramatic rise in the cost of grain that really slowed down production.
By the early 19th century, many of the distilleries had shut down. None opened again until three gents named Sam Galsworthy, Jared Brown and Fairfax Hall decided to bring the art of small-batch, handcrafted gin back to London under the name Sipsmith Independent Distillers. Mind you, it took them two years of jumping through legal hoops before they got the go ahead and Prudence went to work.
Today, Sipsmith produces vodka and a handful of niche sprits, but their main product is a London Dry gin infused with 10 botanicals. It has won numerous awards and can be found on the back bars of fine establishments such as London's Ritz and Savoy hotels.
Sampling is, of course, part of the tour, and as we sip the well-balanced gin we can detect floral notes, fresh lemon, orange zest and, of course, crisp, clean juniper.
And, as so often happens when gin is involved, the strangers who first met on the sidewalk quickly become friends, and as the garage door swings shut behind us, we wander off to the pub at the end of the street for one last round.
For more information on Sipsmith Independent Distillers visit www.sipsmith.com.
For information on travel in London go to the Visit Britain website at www.visitbritain.com.