The Art of Collecting


For a museum curator, editing is one of the hardest jobs. When Frances Sands, the Sir John Soane’s Museum’s Curator of Drawings and Books, was commissioned to write a book about the architectural drawings in the London institution’s collection, she had to find eighty of the best examples from their holdings of more than 30,000. While Sands recognized the offer to write the book as an honor and scholarly thrill, she also experienced the task as being “truly painful and heartbreaking,” because every centuries-old drawing in the collection—in her opinion—is a masterpiece worthy of inclusion. And now, for a show she has entitled “Hidden Masterpieces” (March 9–June 5), she has had to winnow down the collection to only twenty-three drawings, making for more personal heartbreak.

She went throughout the museum, the former home of British architect, teacher, and art collector Sir John Soane (1753–1837), to unlock cabinets and drawers, pulling out drawings that have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public. 

While Sands admits that most exhibitions revolve around a theme, “Hidden Masterpieces,” she emphasizes, has none. “It’s a ‘best bits’ or a ‘smorgasbord of deliciousness,’ to be cinematic about it.” Sands has unrolled many a drawing, read among Soane’s library of leatherbound volumes, and leafed through folios of hand-colored drawings to choose what is on display. Among the treasures (all kept onsite in the three nineteenth-century townhouses that comprise the museum) available for public viewing are a circa-1550 engraved view of Rome’s Colosseum, an exuberant capriccio (or imagined architectural edifice) by Piranesi, an 1817 aerial drawing revealing the plan of Stonehenge, a plate from a volume of Indian and Persian miniatures, and a dramatic 1806 cutaway of Paestum’s Temple of Neptune.

This story appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of MILIEU. To read the complete story or to see all photos, visit the MILIEU Newsstand to purchase this issue in print or visit to purchase this issue in digital format.