Small miracles

The Petrified Music of Architecture
Sir John Soane's Museum, London WC2

This must be how it feels to be a god. The 28 tiny, stunningly detailed and impossible fragile models of European cathedrals sit in glass domes on shelves at Sir John Soane's Museum looking so lifelike that a deity watching from above might, depending on his mood, applaud the effort made in his name, or smash them to smithereens without a second thought. These models are beautiful and almost, well, miraculous. They are the result of unknown man hours and infinite patience, mini Gothic masterpieces made of cardboard that have somehow survived for more than 150 years.

The models - which are currently exhibited at the Soane Museum under the sonorous title "The Petrified Music of Architecture" - were made by William Gorringe between 1840 and 1850 for Sir Herbert Oakeley, a composer of church music, who first showed an interest in cathedral architecture when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. These models form an important part of the Victorian revival of architectural model-making in which Soane himself played a key role.

The Soane harbours a delightful array of classical bric-a-brac housed haphazardly in an old townhouse on Lincoln's Inn Fields, and it is easy to see Soane's oddball collection as the fruits of a wealthy man's whimsy. But Soane used his collection for practical purposes, both in his role as an architect and as a lecturer at the Royal Academy. Model-making had all but gone out of fashion until Soane revived the practice in 1793, making 44 models for his Bank of England, and these and other architectural models became an integral part of his collection. Architecture students would come to his house to study the classical friezes and statues on the ground floor, before progressing to the model room above to examine these three-dimensional representations.

Gorringe's cathedrals never found their way into Soane's vast collection. They were bequeathed to Canterbury Cathedral in 1916 and have barely been seen in public for 80 years. They are made of cardboard and glue. A fine knife has been used to score the roofs to lend them the texture of lead or slate. Slivers of mica have been used to represent glazed windows. Edifices bristle with tiny statues, often just millimetres high. You need to crouch and push your face close to the glass case to fully appreciate the extraordinary detail.

The bulk of the models are of English cathedrals - including St Paul's, York Minster, Lincoln, Canterbury, Westminster Abbey and Durham - with five European cathedrals chosen for comparative significance. Gorringe almost produced these exquisite European miniatures without seeing the originals, instead making careful study of Oakeley's paintings and engravings to ensure he captured the craggy Gothic adornments of Strasbourg and Cologne. There is a heavy Gothic bias in general, with only St Paul's in London and St Peter's in Rome representing other architectural periods.

The English cathedrals look rather small and parochial next to their grand European cousins, although the continental churches were chosen precisely for their dimensions - Cologne is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe; Milan the largest in Italy and Antwerp one of the widest around. When viewed at this scale - one inch for every 60 feet - it becomes obvious that even St Paul's, magnificent in model form even if the cross atop the dome has become slightly wonky over the decades, would fit comfortably inside the gargantuan confines of St Peter's Basilica.

Gorringe made other models but their whereabouts is now a mystery and the museum hope this exhibition will flush out more information on the man and his methods. More is known about Francois Fouquet, a French model-maker whose delightful miniatures of classic Roman and Greek buildings will follow Gorringe's cathedrals in the "Wonders Of The Ancient World" exhibitions in July. Twenty Fouquet models were acquired by Soane in 1833 and displayed in the model room alongside models of Soane's Bank and a stunning cork Pompeii. The museum is creating a new model room in the current renovation that should open in 2015.

Fouquet's creations are white plaster over metal frame, and it's no surprise that John Nash, that master of sweeping white neo-classicism, also had Fouquet's models on display at his Pall Mall home (they are now with the V&A). Two of Soane's models were damaged in the Blitz, the plaster chipped back by shrapnel to reveal the wire skeleton. They currently sit in storage awaiting conservation, but in their current condition represent a fascinating broth of overlapping histories. Victorian models of classical structures with 20th century damage: three eras on two tiny, perfect frames.

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This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden