Mar 25, 2014

A Gay Scandal on London's Museum Circuit

London is the City of Museums, with 240, including some that top every tourist's to-do list: The British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, the Tate Modern, the Museum of London.  But leave some time for the Soane Museum, site of a major gay scandal.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a famous architect who designed or renovated many London landmarks, including the Bank of London, Freemason's Hall, the New Law Courts, and the Palace of Westminster.  He was an antiquarian, a neoclassicist, a traditionalist in a world rocked by revolution and changing sexual mores.

 He designed his own home at 13 Lincoln Inn Fields, filled it with a huge collection of art and antiquities, and turned it into a mausoleum, a memory of a long-dead world.

He hoped that his sons would follow him into architecture, but John (born 1786) was sickly and artistic, and George (born 1789) preferred literature and the theater.  Their relationship was so strained that Soane insisted that he was a "changeling," not his real son at all.


After he left home, George published two anonymous articles savaging his father's architectural style.  But the last straw was the revelation that George was living in sin with his wife Agnes and her sister.  Scandalized, Soane cut off all contact.

Then Agnes wrote, complaining that George was violently abusive to her and her young son Frederick (born in 1816).  At first Soane ignored her, but then it occurred to him that Frederick might yet become an architect and carry on his name.  So he encouraged Agnes to leave George, and sent her 200 pounds per year to pay for Frederick's education.

When Frederic graduated in 1834, Soane got him an apprenticeship with his friend, architect John Tarring.

But 1835 Tarring complained that Frederick was involved in the gay demimonde, carousing with a Captain Wentworth (whose military career had been cut short in a scandal involving the suicide of a young officer rumored to be his lover).

Scandalized again, Soane sent one of his clerks to follow Frederick and report back on any "inappropriate behavior."

In Soane's youth gay men and transvestites patronized clandestine Molly Houses (top photo from the Mark Ravenhill play Mother Clap's Molly House), but in 1835 London they could choose from private parties, drag bars, and all-gay brothels.

Evidently the clerk found something, since Soane cut off Frederick's "per annum" and cut off all contact, "for motives which it does not become me to explain," Frederick wrote later.  He also refused to "article" Frederick, so he could never work as an architect; by 1837, when Soane died, he was living in poverty in a single room with his pregnant wife.

Soane bequeathed his house and its contents, valued at 150,000 pounds, to the British Nation as a museum.  Frederick begged to be appointed curator, but was denied.  Finally his cousin Frederick Chamier petitioned the Prime Minister, and got him appointed to a post at the Stamp and Tax Office.  He died in 1880.

You can visit the Soane Museum from 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. There are no statues of naked men.  Or portraits of Frederick.