Category Archives: 19th Century

Luker’s interiors

As I said in my first post about William Luker Jr, his illustrations to W J Loftie’s Kensington: Historical and Picturesque number over 300. So I haven’t covered all the best ones in two posts. There are still plenty left. In this case we’re following Luker inside various homes in the Kensington area.

 

 

Light shines through glass panels in the door showing a hall with ornate paneling and a fireplace. Beside it a chair with a high back, over which is draped a robe of some kind. It’s these little details that always intrigue me. here’s another empty space.

 

This hall is pleasantly cluttered with a seemingly random collection of art objects. It seems to be a common feature in the rooms of Luker’s friends, like at Lowther Lodge. (An interesting building in itself.)

 

 

 

Also cluttered in parts, but quite spacious too.

 

 

Luker had access to some luxurious properties, like this drawing room with plants and paintings.

 

 

And this studio, currently unoccupied.

 

 

With a large painting taking shape.

Another empty hall, with a decorative floor.

 

 

And eventually we see some people. In this case John Everett Millais, posed with a palette in hand, facing his wife Effie.

 

 

The Millais house was in Palace Gate, and is now an embassy. It was Effie they used to say, whose pubic hair frightened John Ruskin (although if I mention it I feel obliged to say it was probably not true. The marriage was annulled. Ruskin later went on to found an institution we’re very fond of here at the Time Centre.)

Below, another old friend of the blog.

 

 

Edward Linley Sambourne, another friend of Luker’s. at work in his studio in Stafford Terrace.

From empty or sparsely populated rooms to a room at the Kensington Vestry Hall which is filled with people and music.

 

 

 

A musical evening. Some ladies removed their hats for the convenience of other audience members. Others kept them on, but people would have been too polite to mention the matter.

In the previous century, a less informal musical evening in a house in Kensington Square, coloured in for the published version of the illustration.

 

 

And in Luker’s “now”, hundreds of people in a room to hear a concert, at the Albert Hall.

 

 

 

 

But I think he was happiest in a nearly empty room.

 

 

With just a cat, perhaps, checking the room for feline friendly refreshments.

 

 

Or a couple of dogs in another cluttered room in Notting Hill Square. They look like they’re waiting for Luker to go so they can choose a sofa or chair in which they could relax.

Finally, back at the Millais house.

 

With a seal. Not a real one of course. It’s not Rossetti’s, after all.

All these rooms could have had a story. I’m sure Miss Miranda Green could have been in many of them. She was very well connected. But she wasn’t here this week. Perhaps next time….

 

Postscript

I’ve got a cold so I’m not very lively at the moment, hence the low word count this week. But Mr Luker’s pictures are usually evocative enough on their own.

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Christmas Days: pungently Burgundian

Regulars readers will have noticed that I’m using the phrase “regular readers” frequently these days, perhaps too frequently, but I have been writing this blog for seven years now, so a certain amount of repetition is bound to creep in now and then. Some of you may be aware that as a fan of the Survey of London I treasure some of the quirky phrases that the writers use  – “umbrageous Brompton” for example or “orthodox, restless, ornamental“. But my favourite is the title of this post, and it was applied to a building I go past twice every working day. Number 1, Kensington High Street. (Not to be confused with the upstart Number 1 Kensington Road, the insistently modern apartment building between  De Vere Gardens and Victoria Road,  which is a few doors down from our Number 1 – Kensington Court and other addresses separate them.)

 

 

You can see what they mean by pungently Burgundian. A certain medieval style, decorative. Like somebody’s idea of a French chateau, something we’ve seen before.

 

Designed by Alfred Williams in 1886 for the London County Bank, it was later used by the National Bank and later the National Westminster. In the 1980s it was a branch of the Leamimgton Spa building Society.

But in recent years it has been an Indian restaurant. At one point a few years ago someone who worked there came into Local Studies and asked me if it had ever been a church. The answer was no ,but how interesting to think that it could have been. Not a regular church I imagine. the Brethren of the Free Spirit perhaps, decorated inside with reproductions of scenes from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight, the Sisters of Torment (also a plausible goth band from the 90s?) or the Starry Wisdom cult (branches in New England and elsewhere). But no, just a bank. This Burgundian style seemed to be a feature of late 19th century financial institutions. Look at this building society in Glasgow in the 1970s.

 

 

My home town, Chester, has plenty of these retro designs. such as the HSBC  in Eastgate Street.

 

 

 

(Chester also boasts a similarly Gothic branch of Barclays, next to the Cathedral.)

That early stretch of Kensington High Street has some of the oldest buildings in the street.

 

 

Kate Ker Banks (“robes”) at number 3, the Goat Tavern at 3A, and the Old Three Tuns at number 5.

Next to them a circulating library, an urban dairy and at 21 Foley the American dentist (even then, American dentistry was a thing – “teeth, complete set one guinea”)

 

 

 

And what The Gas and Coke Company, next to the Barkers building?

 

 

This striking urban castle goes almost unnoticed these days, with a branch of NatWest on the ground floor. But you can imagine some solitary activity going on in that tower, and if we’re thinking alternate worlds / steampunk. perhaps someone could have tethered their airship to the little tower while they clambered down into the castle for an assignation.

[Addendum: after one of the comments below I had a look at what the Survey said about this building and it delivered several new phrases for my collection: “shockingly striped and ornamented”, “bumptiously large shop windows” and “skittish passages of terracotta decoration”. Thank you, Teresa.]

 

Monkeys recommend

This year brought the final volume of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series, Europe at Dawn. In the picture below Florence and Cornelius have shepherded all four volumes together.

 

 

The series is a  mixture of espionage and science fiction. In a Balkanised Europe where small regions and cities have become sovereign states, a semi-secret organisation of couriers passes secrets and people via convoluted routes. There is also a parallel pocket universe with an alternative version of Europe. This is one of the most original science fiction settings in many years, say the monkeys. I think so too.

 


Demolition: the fall of a town hall

In December 1983 I went down to Kensington High Street from North Kensington Library. It must have been one of those half days when I finished at one o’clock because it was around lunchtime. I saw from the bus that the former Kensington Town Hall had been partially breached by a wrecking ball and that the large hall in the centre of the building was now open to the elements. I was astounded. And, I admit, a little excited.

 

 

This is history now. Rumour had it that the GLC (remember them?) had been planning to list the building on a Monday, so to prevent this, demolition began the day before. Arguments followed, for and against. Some called it a desecration of a fine old building, some argued that it was financially necessary for the Council to maximize what it could make from the old building. Some said it was an architectural loss, others said that London has more than enough mediocre Victorian municipal buildings and wouldn’t miss this one. Although many years have passed the controversy has never completely been forgotten. But having noted the issues, I’m going to stick with the facts of the matter. And the pictures. Because although the building has gone, Council photographers, including our own John Rogers recorded it, and its passing. We have also been given photographs taken by members of the public. As regular readers will have realized, I like a bit of destruction. The poetry of devastation. So let me indulge myself.

 

I’ve been reading the Survey of London of course, and a handy little book published by English Heritage called London’s Town Halls, and it seems that nobody like the Town Hall that much. Its design had been reached by a “badly organised competition” from which “Gothic and Elizabethan styles were specifically excluded“. The architect, one Robert Walker (no relation as far as I know) went with (the Survey quoted Building News) “a commonplace Italian design“. (The term “Italianate” is often used pejoratively by architectural writers, as in the phrase “crude Italianate villas” applied by one writer to expensive houses in the Boltons in Old Brompton Road).  It was opened in 1880 and extended in 1898-99. It was large enough to be a serviceable town hall until the current building in Hornton Street was built. There is a post about its construction here.

 

 

This picture shows the rear extension from the garden in Church Walk.

The garden was formerly part of the church burial ground.

 

 

You can see St Mary Abbotts in the picture below.

 

 

But back to 1983. This is a view from a roof on the opposite side of the High Street, after the middle section was cleared of rubble.

 

 

The next pictures are a little earlier, immediately after the initial demolition work.

 

 

Jets of water to dampen down the dust in the air.

 

 

The view on the street after the boards went up.

 

 

And just before, a huge pile of debris.

 

Close up to the pile.

 

 

 

On the pavement, life goes on.

 

 

What was left of the building was actually left standing for a couple of years while it was being decided what to do next. The final demolition took place in 1984.

The great hall, partially cleared.

 

 

 

But before we leave this little detail from the side of the building intrigued me.

 

We’ll come back to the Town Hall again in the new year when we’ll have a look inside. Next week is the start of my usual series of short daily posts for the run up to Christmas

 

Postscript

A few hours after I published last week’s post news came through that Pete Shelley, founding member of Buzzcocks had died aged 63. As a 63-year old myself I am totally opposed to the deaths of men of that age. And as others have said, he took a bit of my life with him. Buzzcocks were one of the great punk bands and one of the first to make a record (the Spiral Scratch EP) by themselves, without any help from a record company. Shelley wrote and sang love songs with a sharp edge, catchy but uncompromisingly noisy. Sometimes at this point I quote a favourite lyric, but although Shelley wrote perfectly good pithy lyrics, what I remember most is the sound – the curious guitar on Ever fallen in love, and the powerful climax in the same song when guitar, drums and voice come together in a controlled explosion, the .  It’s perfectly appropriate that Buzzcocks recorded for United Artists who brought us records by Can (Shelley was, like me, a Can fan).

I had to explain to a couple of people who Pete Shelley was. What I said was imagine if Paul Weller died. Or John Lydon, Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry? Joe Strummer is already gone. Pete Shelley was in that league.


Horse locomotion: at the Hippodrome

Among the many William Luker illustrations to Loftie’s Kensington: Picturesque and Historical  is this one. At this size it just looks like a mound or hill with a small crowd of people and a few horses. But click on the image and look at it in a larger form.

 

 

This is the Hippodrome, and this is one of the few illustrations which gives a sense of the hill and what it must have been like to see it from ground level. (This is the hill on the summit of which St John’s Church now stands.)

Some of you will have heard of it before. Its story has been told before in many places, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Kensington’s famous race course, today I’ll give you a brief version of the tale.

It’s gone now,of course, utterly vanished, but here is where it was:

 

 

This is the Davies map of London from 1841, the first to show the main rail lines into central London. The area north of Notting Hill Gate / Uxbridge Road is barely developed and you can see just south of the railway line the two farms Portobello Farm (just off Portobello Lane) and Notting Barn Farm.

 

 

Given the Hippodrome’s brief life span, we’re lucky it made it onto the map. Counter’s Creek flows freely to the west of the Hippodrome grounds and the area known as the Potteries nestles against them. Just the sort of area for setting up a sporting enterprise.The area was part of the Ladbroke Estate and in 1836 it was optimistically leased by a Mr John Whyte foe a period of 21 years.

 

 

On paper perhaps it looked like a decent proposition. Plenty of space – it was laid out for flat racing and steeple chasing, and the area was expanded to accommodate different distances. There was room for stabling horses and carriages and as you can see below it was fine for a young man to drive a young lady there in his new carriage and pair.

 

 

Room for plenty of enthusiastic spectators too.  Saying it was in Bayswater added a certain cachet to the name. So close to London you see. No need to go to Epsom.

 

There were one or two legal issues. A right of way went through the grounds, which the Vestry has ordered Whyte to keep open. This allowed an uncouth crowd of locals and other malcontents to gain free access. Eventually the course was altered so as not to obstruct the pathway.

On the plan below you can see that the entrance path stretched all the way to what is now Pembridge Road.

 

 

Barbara Denny, in her book on Notting Hill records that the path became known as Cut-Throat Lane because of the many instances of robbery committed along it.  (although we must remember that street robbery was not uncommon in the outer parts of London . The area known as the Five Fields in Knightsbridge was notorious for violent crime too.

We have a series of prints depicting the racing at the Hippodrome.

 

 

This shows the high fence that was erected around the ground, (to exclude, in the word of my constant companion the Survey of London “the rude and licentious populace” of the neighbourhood,) The smoking kiln in the background reminds us how close the Potteries area was.

 

 

Some chaotic jumping, and below a fallen horse.

 

 

Unfortunately the going was never too good because of the clay soil.

Below a rider is unseated at the Brook.

 

 

You will have noticed that the horses are depicted with all their legs outstretched in what is known as a “flying gallop”. This was a convention of horse pictures which can be seen in ancient pictures of horses in motion and in the work of the 18th century painter of horses and other animals, George Stubbs. Slow motion moving pictures were not available in the days of the Hippodrome, so while it’s easy for us to say things like “horses just don’t do that”, it wasn’t actually obvious to the naked eye.

The first person to prove otherwise was the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge who devised a method of taking a number of pictures in rapid succession which captured the actuality of horse locomotion.

 

 

Below is a jump.

 

 

His work also gave rise to an early form of motion pictures, the zoopraxiscope, which could project these images in rapid succession creating the illusion of movement. An early form of stop  motion filming. Kingston Museum has a special collection of Muybridge material including an actual zoopraxiscope.

Even Luker, who was certainly around when Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion was published keeps this convention up in this close up of his illustration. The crowd of spectators looks carefree. By Luker’s day the Hippodrome was a picturesque memory.

 

 

 

 

After 13 race meetings the Hippodrome was wound up. A new proprietor took over but the final race took place in June 1841. The developers moved in and Notting Hill as we know it today came into existence. But that memory of the Hipodrome remains as an example of how in early and mid -19th century times, Londoners had an urge for outdoor entertainments which only grew as the century progressed.


William Luker – a walk in the Gardens

The artist William Luker Jr devoted quite a few pictures to Kensington Gardens as his contribution to W J Loftie’s Kensington: Picturesque and Historical. Miss Charlotte Green, from this post, did not of course exist in the strictest sense of the word, but nevertheless for today’s purposes we know she travelled abroad, never married, but brought a child back to live in Kensington with her in the 1880s. Miss Miranda Green had a darker complexion than her mother but this was never remarked upon in Kensington. Mrs Green, as she was known, was now wealthy enough for people to ignore any questions about Miranda’s father. It must be said however that as Miranda grew up she seemed to prefer her own company and often walked alone through the familiar places her mother had shown her.

 

 

She and her mother may have lived in Sheffield Terrace, near to Mr Luker’s house so they may have seen some of his work in progress.

 

 

 

They may have known why the artist included a broken ladder in this pictures of the Round Pond frozen at the height of winter, and why the ladder seems to have offered a way out of, or into, the picture. Miranda and her mother walked by the pond all year round.

 

 

Sometimes just strolling by,

Other times looking closer.

As a child she learned all the secret places of the park.

 

 

(We’ve seen  another artist’s view of this spot. )

As she grew older and walked out on her own she favoured other secluded places.

 

 

She liked to stand in the shadows away from view, but when she became a young woman she walked more boldly.

 

 

Sometimes she imagined the Gardens as they were in the 18th century.


 

The past seemed to offer an exotic destination, if a way could be found to reach it.

 

 

 

Perhaps through Mr Luker, Miranda met a sympathetic companion.

 


 

He may have been another artist, or an academic, or a writer. The two of them walked through the Gardens often.

 

 

Stopping at some of the unusual sights that could be found.

 

 

Allowing the Gardens to fill their imaginations.

 

 

 

She imagined that one day she would take her own daughter through a small side entrance.

 

Out of the Gardens, or out of the picture altogether.

This post is dedicated to my friend Camilla , who liked the last outing of the Green family.

 

Postscripts

This post should have been published already, but I’ve been busy with the London History Festival which finishes tonight. I thought it would be a good idea to get a post in before December. Pretty soon Christmas will be on us and there will be the usual short posts for the week before Christmas.

The main off-topic item for this post is naturally the death of Stan Lee. For most of my life, he was only really well known in the world of comics, as the man behind Marvel. “Super heroes with super problems” as the slogan went.  Stan (we were always on first name terms with him when I was a teenager) brought a new element of realism to the unrealistic notion of super heroes, and his key creations, Spiderman, Thor, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Dr Strange, Iron Man have now become embedded in popular culture. Marvel overtook DC in the  multiverse of comics (and I still look down on DC characters like Superman and the Flash,with a grudging respect for Batman and a few others.) In his later years he worked to bring the Marvel Universe to the movies, and now his name is familiar to a much wider group of people (not least because of his many cameo appearances). But I want to remember him for the exciting new worlds of storytelling he and his team brought into my childhood and adolescence. So, even though it’s already familiar from the many obituaries: “Excelsior!”

Death has taken this opportunity to add another name to his tally. Nicholas Roeg, director of Performance, Don’t look now, the Man who fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Insignificance and many other unconventional films which I have enjoyed over the years. He was one of the UK’s true auteurs and we should be grateful for his life and work. Obituary writers have also mentioned his film Eureka as an unacknowledged classic, but I would also mention one more, Cold heaven (1991) which I have a fondness for (another of one the films which featured his third wife, the iconic Theresa Russell). Roeg, of course lived in Kensington for part of his life so we can count him as a local man.

Isabel and I have been discussing future blog posts, and she has more ideas than I do. But you’ll probably have to wait until next year for those. In the meantime I have no idea what I’m doing next week.


Mr William Luker Jr, Coadjutor

W J Loftie’s 1888 book Kensington: Picturesque and Historical is an unprepossessing volume. But inside, there are, as the title page states “upwards of three hundred illustrations (some in colour)” in the book (you’d think someone knew the exact number) and as you flick through it you can see that barely a page goes by without at least one picture on it, all of them by William Luker Junior, but many of them are quite small, almost cramped on the page. I can see why I’ve never paid too much attention to it. But, and there is a big but here, the library also has in its collection the original sketches for the book, tied up in three portfolios, and these are all rather bigger than the printed versions and these show that Luker was a rather better artist than I had thought, and much quirkier. He deserves to be taken as seriously as other book illustrators I have featured on the blog such as Herbert Railton (whose sketches by contrast are often improved by being turned into engravings on the printed page) and Yoshio Markino (who also worked with Loftie on “The Colour of London”).

Loftie, in his leisurely introduction, thanks everybody but Luker, but at the end he seems to remember his illustrator and the contribution he made. He calls him “my coadjutor“, an obscure word which can mean just assistant but is usually associated with the church as in the phrase “coadjutor bishop” ( a deputy with the right of succession). The word suits him. For my purposes he has succeeded to Loftie’s position as the author of a picturesque story about Kensington, told in images not words.

 

 

 

Isabel’s post last week included a Luker illustration which started me on a scanning journey which covered slightly more than a hundred images. So as you can imagine I will get more than one post out of Mr Luker and I can already envisage many different themes. In this post I’ll just run through a few of Luker’s preoccupations. In this view of tennis courts behind St Mary Abbot’s Church, Luker has found an unusual angle, looking down at the players, which emphasizes the remarkable height of the spire. He likes using the black margin, usually broken, and he likes to play with it – note the gap just above the spire. He also crosses the margin as you can see with the foliage. The illustrations are almost pushing at the text and vice versa.

The other quality that please me about Luker’s work is that it makes the familiar scenes of Kensington seem unfamiliar. That tennis court could be in any cathedral city on a tranquil afternoon in the 19th century. This view gives a similar impression.

 

 

It concentrates on the family group gathered in a green space, on a Sunday morning with Holy Trinity Church and the Brompton Oratory looming in the background in a city which is definitely London but also some imaginary city of large churches and open spaces. Like Markino, Luker loves the human figures, and although the pictures are in monochrome tones he has a sense of different seasons. This looks like a summer picture to me. I’m not so sure with this one.

 

 

Two women walk arm in arm along a wide street beside the railings at the border of a park. You imagine them sharing confidences as they stroll along. Compare it with this one ,which comes from this post. The bare branches could indicate autumn.

Below, a spacious view of a more familiar feature of Kensington. (Or, strictly speaking near Kensington). Probably in summer.

 

 

The next picture is definitely winter.

 

 

Kensington High Street looking east, or any snowbound street scene. Is that policeman supervising the man with the shovel, or merely indulging the universal tendency to watch someone at work?

Here is another  view of the same street.

 

 

The time honoured art of window shopping. The bored girl stares into space waiting for her mother to finish so that they can proceed to the park. Her hoop and stick is ready for action. They were once as common as scooters are today, and like scooters, were used by older children as well. Or perhaps the girl is looking at another technological phenomenon.

 

 

 

A double bicycle, piloted by a Chaplinesque rider. it looks harder work than two individual bikes.

The big letters at the margin are not random, as I half-thought at one stage until realising the obvious. They are the first letters of a paragraph. The text intrudes into the images.

The picture below reminds me of one of Markino’s night time interiors.

 

 

High Street Kensington Station, with travellers on their way home. the long shadows fascinate me and the whiff of steam in the air, although I think steam trains on the Underground had been abandoned by the 1880s.

Both Loftie and Luker were Kensington residents, and lived in Stafford Terrace. They were presumably both acquainted with one of their neighbours, seen at work below.

 

 

Our good friend Edward Linley-Sambourne, artist and photographer at work in his home studio. (The margin line looks as if it was about to fall and the unconcerned artist is only saved by the easel.)

Loftie wrote other books about London subjects and Luker illustrated some of them, and books by other writers. I’ve been trying to find some of them which appear on the Library catalogue, without much success as yet. (some of those entries have come from very old versions of the catalogue. It’s sometimes like walking into a 19th century library down there.)

Mr Luker Senior was also an artist and painter of country scenes and animals, and also atmospheric pictures of the Middle East, another favourite subject for Victorian painters, like David Roberts and Edward Lear. (not to mention Richard Dadd). Luker Junior was born in 1867 and lived till 1957 so he certainly survived long enough to see some changes in Kensington.

He outlived this building.

 

 

The gothic folly  known as Abbey which once stood where I now sit writing this (as I have pointed out before – see this post)

The gothic imagination also informs this view of a ruined tower which was once part of Campden House. You can see a photograph of it in another post.

 

 

Finally, another image which echoes one by Markino.  Thistle Grove. Markino’s version is here. His version looks north I think, while this one by Luker looks south.

 

 

 

But both of them catch the mysterious quality of the narrow passage between the Fulham Road and the Old Brompton Road which I have walked down many times, and the lonliness of a nigh time walk between the lamps.

 

This week’s post has been a sample of Luker’s work showing a few images that appealed to me. I’ll come back to him again though in the near future.

 


Alfred Waterhouse, the affable artist, and the Natural History Museum

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.

 

 

 

Postcscript:

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.

 


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