Halls of Empire: inside the Imperial Institute 1893

It’s difficult for me to figure out if anyone ever knew what the Imperial Institute was for exactly. Possibly Edward, the Prince of Wales whose idea it was had a good idea. So although it was opened in 1893 when his mother was still on the throne you could call it an early instance of that Edwardian fantasy we’ve looked at in other posts. I’ve been looking at images of the Institute but not for once of its exterior and that strange tower which has survived longer than the rest of it but of its more interesting and far stranger interior.

Grand staircase  1897 02

The Grand Staircase hangs in the air as though it belonged to a fictional castle tower or a Piranesi engraving.

Grand staircase  1897 03

At dizzying heights, almost too far away to see barely identifiable mythological and classical figures are depicted.

Entrance Hall 1897

So let’s enter. The door is closed. Two lithe big cats guard the stairs behind us.

Ahead of us is a long high corridor. At the far end light streams in through a window.

West corridor 1895

You can search all these rooms without finding a sign of inhabitants. There is a J G Ballard story about a seemingly empty and endless space station. The Institute looks a little like that in these pictures.

There is no one in the empty conference hall.

East Conference Hall 1896

Or this room with its elaborate ceiling.

British American Conference Room Opening of the Imperial Institute May 1893

Some of those rooms are decorated in the style of the countries of the empire.

British India Conference Room 1896

There are some spaces filled up with objects.

British Indian Exhibition Galleries Opening of the Imperial Institute May 1893

So have we entered a museum?

Ceylon Exhibition Gallery Opening of the Imperial Institute May 1893

It looks a little more like a nation’s attic.

There are some signs of life here:

Australian Conference Room 1895

It looks like a deserted gentleman’s club.

But in this gloomy room the scattering of papers shows some evidence of the activity within:

Fellows Writing Room Opening of the Imperial Institute May 1893

And this room is waiting for a meeting but for how long will it wait?

Executive Council Chamber Opening of the Imperial Institute May 1893

Head downstairs and there are even hints of recreation.

Fellows Billiard Room Opening 1893

Have we been here before?

Canadian Conference Room 1895

After sixty years or so of inconclusive activity the rooms were empty again. You might have seen one diffident stranger in the distance…

Corridor 1961

But you could have imagined it. And now all the halls and rooms are gone.


Some of these pictures are described as ink photos. I imagine that this is some process involving inking over a photograph to create an image which was easier to print in a magazine. But really I just don’t know and if anyone can enlighten me I’d be grateful.


16 responses to “Halls of Empire: inside the Imperial Institute 1893

  • Debbie Robson

    Amazing! Is the building still standing. They should rent the rooms out for filming period dramas if it still looks the same or has it all disappeared?

    • Dave Walker

      The Imperial Institute was demolished in 1957. All that remains is the Queen’s Tower still a well known feature of the Kensington skyline (and featured in the Towers of Kensington post). Its successor the Commonwealth Institute is currently being converted into the new home of the Design Museum. I hope to present some interior pictures of the pre-conversion Institute soon.

  • Debbie Robson

    I’ll look forward to those! Thanks Dave!

  • Steampunk News » on empires and structures

    […] In 1893, the Imperial Institute was amazing, glorious…and sort of empty. Take a tour! […]

  • aspyhole


    This is a great site and very pleased I stumbled across it.
    Definitely going to keep following for further developments and posts – thanks!


  • Tom Wilson

    Beautifully evocative images. Are they photographs from the RBKC archive or are they taken from a publication? I’m doing a PhD on the Imperial and Commonwealth Institutes and can help with identifying rooms/areas of the Imperial Institute if so desired.

    • Dave Walker

      They’re mostly from a periodical called the Architect – May 1893, August and September 1896,- although in a few cases the source is unidentifiable. Fortunately they’re all labelled. but do you know what an ink photo is?

    • Hellymens

      Hi Tom,
      I hope you were successful with your PhD!! Mine is on Thomas Hardy and music and he frequently refers to having attended musical events at the Imperial Institute, especially 1893 – 1897, but I can find no record of musical events held there.
      Would you have any idea where I might look for this sort of information please?
      All best,

  • Tom Wilson


    Thank you for the reference! I’ll look it up. Do let me know if you come across any more photos – I know the Illustrated London News and the Graphic both had images of the Imperial Institute as well.

    I suspect the term ‘ink photo’ is just a way of describing the (then relatively new) offset lithographic printing process. After all, offset litho uses ink and was used for large print runs (such as magazines). If you look closely, can you see whether the image was printed with an array of small dots? If so, it’s most likely an offset litho print, and the term ‘ink photo’ has probably fallen out of usage with time. I could be wrong though… will investigate further.

  • Michael W. Meister

    Any documentation of the Warburg Institute’s quarters in the Imperial Institute Buildings in the 1940s?

  • Jollivet

    do you know articles in the internet which talk about what the imperial institute was built for and what was done in the imperial institute, please? As it was destroyed to built a college, i find almost nothing about the imperial institute as it was in 1893…

  • The Imperial Institute « john ireland: music, people, places

    […] place, for example meeting his sister Ethel there in July 1932. These photographs of the interior of the Imperial Institute  give a sense of its grandeur and what was lost when it was demolished in the […]

  • John

    It seems that they may at some time have had refreshments at the Institute supplied by J.Lyons & Co, of the corner house fame, I have a token that you can see here https://imageshack.com/a/img924/8370/uoNrM4.jpg

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