This week’s post is the work of my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez for whom this has been a labour of love. I can only thank her for her hard work in giving us another epic post, and me a week or so off.
The Natural History Museum in South Kensington has to be one of the most attractive buildings in London, arguably the most aesthetically beautiful. When asked if I have a favourite, this is it. The museum’s distinctive terracotta facade and wonderful collection of decorative animals dotted around the building’s heights is impressive. The expansive central hall as you walk in through the arch front entrance resembles a religious sanctum – the building in fact is a Romanesque-like cathedral commissioned to house the expansive collection of flora and fauna specimens that began with Sir Hans Sloane in the 18th century.
But, as with most grand schemes, the inception, design and subsequent building was not a smooth sailing affair. It would be twenty years, give or take a few, before the building you see today came into being. And I for one am very pleased it did. I have visited many times and admit to being biased in my view. I have a love for natural history. I still enjoy looking at all the detail of the building, not as an architect, but as someone who can only appreciate its aesthetic appeal as an ordinary onlooker. The Victorians were big on grandeur. I think Alfred Waterhouse managed to infuse it with a little artistry too.
If you want to distinguish Alfred Waterhouse from his contemporaries then look no further than his red brick, terracotta creations: The Manchester Town Hall, the Prudential Assurance building in London’s Holborn, Eaton Hall in Cheshire and many, many more commissions. Many still stand, but a few have been demolished over the years. Even his own home in reading, Foxhill House, was a distinctive red. He was a man known for his professionalism and his reliability and amassed quite a fortune. One who would take on small projects and was not intimidated by large ones either. Proof of that is in the rescue of a building that almost never came to be: London’s Natural History Museum.
(Alfred Waterhouse courtesy the RIBA)
Alfred Waterhouse came from a strict Quaker background. His parents belonged to the Society of Friends and his education at Grove House School, Tottenham is where he met many of his future clients, sons of influential Quaker families. He showed a very early aptitude for drawing and was mainly self-taught. Although his passion was for painting – many of his watercolours were regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy later in life – it was not considered a suitable profession, and so architecture became his focus.
He was by nature a practical and meticulous professional and soon established himself as a man who was able to design a workable building and knew exactly how to cater to his clients, right down to the smallest of commissions. His amicability with committees and his willingness to modify his designs made him the perfect candidate for the creation of the Natural History Museum. Below you will see examples of his drawings.
The Natural History Museum first opened to the public in April 1881 after many years of planning and design changes. The growing collections, originally housed in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, desperately needed a new, more suitable home. And so it was Sir Richard Owen, the natural scientist and curator of the existing collection, who convinced the Board of Trustees to find the adequate space needed to house this vast treasure. It was eventually decided that a new site and purpose built building was needed. A competition was set up, and the architect and engineer, Captain Francis Fowke, who designed the 1862 Exhibition building (Ironically on the site of the present NHM building) produced the winner. Although his previous creation was at one time considered a possible building to house the Natural History collections, it was eventually decided, after much debate, that it wasn’t suitable after all. So the whole edifice was pulled down and the site purchased in June 1863 by the government. How the museum eventually came to fruition is nothing short of a colossal feat with so many ideas vying for the helm.
(The 1862 Great Exhibition building as it was before being demolished)
Captain Fowke’s original design was considered a handsome winning entry, but was by no means everybody’s favourite. When he died unexpectedly in 1865 the government was at a loss as to what to do. In the end it was decided that rather than the commission going to the runner up, Robert Kerr – who was not happy – Fowke’s design would be kept and a new architect appointed. That man was the promising, but relatively unknown, 36-year-old, Alfred Waterhouse. Although Fowke’s design was the original blueprint for the museum, Waterhouse’s artistic flare was imbued over most of it.
A photograph showing the cavernous main hall of the NHM before it was occupied by the main exhibits that were to greet the many visitors throughout the decades. Without the displays the space is overwhelming. It is hard to imagine now with all the visitors in attendance just how quiet such a place can be, despite its size.
(Central Hall, 1882. Courtesy of the NHM)
The drawing below shows detail of the first floor windows; an elaborate portion of the building, including the archways at the end of the galleries.
“The format of the window was inspired by those of Fowke’s museum design of 1864, but Waterhouse changed the detailing from Fowke’s Italian Renaissance into Romanesque.”
(Alfred Waterhouse and The Natural History Museum – Mark Girouard)
You may recognise the front of the building here. A half plan, detail elevation of the principal entrance showing some of the ornamentation above the arches.
Below are some of the wondrous creatures you will see dotted around the museum. Gargoyles and guardians of a large menagerie.
The Central Hall again C. 1924, this time displaying a number of cases showing a collection of hummingbirds and four elephants, the largest being named George, as he was dubbed by the journalists of the day.
(Central Hall with elephants and cases, 1924. Courtesy of the NHM)
The Illustrated London News showing George with a pygmy shrew. The biggest land mammal contrasting with the smallest. It is difficult for us now to appreciate just how fantastical these creatures were to the general public at the time. We have come a long way since then. With more and more scientific breakthroughs and our access to information being much more accessible now, we are perhaps less awed by such specimens. The world is a smaller place. The technological advances in the making of natural history documentaries, for example, is simply astounding. And seeing these creatures in their natural habitats, even if vicariously through the cameraman’s lens, is nothing short of extraordinary. We are very lucky. And yet we cannot simply dismiss the extraordinary work behind the scenes of these great museums. Education and awareness of the natural world is all the more important in an age when we almost seem so far removed from it we fail to understand our part in it.
Details of stairs, panels and columns all beautifully illustrated located at the north end of the large hall.
Thirty-six crates and three months of jigsaw puzzling later in May 1905, the cast of Diplodocus is put together, fondly known to many of us as Dippy. The original skeleton is in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, USA. He is currently on tour around the UK, details of which are on the NHM website.
(Diplodocus on display, 1905. Courtesy of the NHM)
More details showing the frieze and panels over the main entrance. A pair of binoculars to get a better look at these in the museum would be ideal. And with my eyesight, a magnifying glass too. The decoration of the east and west wings of the museum depict animals within the collection of both extinct and living species respectively. This was a feature Professor Richard Owen, superintendent of the natural history departments, and the man responsible for the commissioning of a new museum was keen on having on as a feature of the building.
The reptile gallery in 1889. Formidable looking crocodiles and other stuffed specimens in glass cabinets on display. Imagine seeing the open jaws of a crocodile for the first time, all be it a museum specimen and not a live one? I know my daughter would have been the first to want to touch those teeth once upon an age ago when her curiosity about such things was ripe.
(Reptile Gallery, 1889. Courtesy of the NHM)
The drawing below shows a complete bay on the side of the entrance hall, depicting plants, land, and marine mammals. Mark Girouard points out in his book that:
“The Natural History Museum was the first building in England, and possibly in the world, where the main facades were entirely faced with terracotta. It was also the first of a long series of such buildings designed by Waterhouse; his enthusiasm for terracotta was so great that it is all many people remember about him.”
Terracotta was relatively cheap too and resistant to the bane of all city buildings – acid. The spaces between the terracotta and the iron was filled with fine cement concrete, “so as to render the casing impervious to either fire or water.” The casing is what houses the ornaments.
The Shell Gallery in 1911 with an impressive model of a giant squid in the background. A creature Captain Nemo and the Nautilus are all too familiar with. Unfortunately, an incendiary bomb hit the gallery in 1940, damaging the roof and causing a fire. It was later converted into a lecture hall.
(Shell Gallery, 1911. Courtesy of the NHM)
Details showing the terracotta details of the arcade, gallery and windows in the Central Hall. Note the stone monkeys on the bottom right, used to enrich the main arches of the gallery.
A group of school children crowd around the flea case in 1927. The museum has ever been educational, and no less during World War 1 when they produced information regarding the danger of parasites such as fleas and ticks. Creatures that are still with us today, but less problematic in terms of what we now know about them. Knowledge and awareness goes a long way.
(Crowd around flea case, 1927. Courtesy of the NHM)
Having read about the feat it took to get the Natural History Museum built I am amazed it was completed at all. It is important to note that Alfred Waterhouse had to alter his original plans several times to try and mitigate the rising costs of the project and the opposing views of the various museum authorities. His frustration at times with this and the various contractors may well have been palpable. His idealistic, artistic vision was being curtailed by practicalities, bureaucracy and the differing aesthetic viewpoints of all those involved in the commission. Understandably, there are limits. He was not immune to criticism either. Macmillan Magazine in January 1872 ridiculed Waterhouse’s ‘period’ style. And some of Fowke’s supporters, namely George Cavendish and Lord Elcho, tried to get rid of Waterhouse’s ‘abomination’ as they called his design. It was even suggested that ‘the Board should in future use only architects over whom they could exercise more control’. Such was the opposition. But, despite all that, Waterhouse remained stoic and was allowed to build his masterpiece. I think you would have to be generally good-natured in order to succeed when things happen to thwart you. If one thing doesn’t work, you try something else. If somebody objects, you present an alternative. He was pragmatic enough to understand what was required and overall he succeeded. When the museum finally opened in in April 1881 the reception of Waterhouse’s building was on the whole favourable. His reputation, despite the setbacks, was not compromised.
A quote from the Building News 1876 based on the initial drawings by A Waterhouse:
“It may have provoked some hostile criticism from the Royal Engineers and amateurs – its ground floor space has been said to be not more than half that provided by Captain Fowke – but, whatever may be said, its plan is certainly one of the best we have seen for museum purposes, and its architecture, when finished, will disarm opponents.”
Fortunate then that he accepted the commission. It’s hard to imagine a different building in place of what we have now. Below is Alfred Waterhouse’s acceptance letter to the First Commissioner of Works stipulating some of his requirements.
Here is an image taken from W.J Lofitie’s, Kensington Picturesque and Historical of a scene along Cromwell Road showing the newly built Natural History Museum in the background. It has something of a charming, Christmas card feel about it – certainly picturesque and historical.
Phew! Well, that’s more than enough for this week’s blog.
I thought that a blog about the Natural History Museum would be a straightforward piece to write. After all, how difficult can talking about a series of photographs be? I have done it before. And yet the NHM has proved something of a conundrum for me, simply because it is so well known, and sometimes condensing something to only a few paragraphs doesn’t do it justice.
There are books that give a more detailed account of this remarkable museum which I recommend you read should you want a deeper knowledge of this institutions history and its origins. My less than scholarly approach has only provided glimpses.
Most of the images I’ve used are from our own Local Studies collection, unless otherwise indicated. I would like to thank the Natural History Museum Archives department, in particular Laura Brown, the NHM’s archivist and colleagues, for their wonderful help. They have a fantastic collection! You will find them and many more fascinating photographs in the book: Museum through a Lens – photographs from 1880 to 1950, which I highly recommend. It’s a great gift for anyone interested in pictorial history. And for a more detailed account of the museum’s building and history there is: The Natural History Museum at South Kensington by William Stearn and Alfred Waterhouse and The Natural History Museum by Mark Girouard. Both are well researched and good reference books. The Survey of London is also an invaluable source for building history. I have thumbed through Volume XXXVIII many times to make sure I didn’t go too far astray.