Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.
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CHAPTER XII - Eastern and Western Galleries
Until the expansion of the buildings of Imperial College in the late 1950's two matching ranges of exhibition galleries built in 1869–71 extended north and south on either side of the Imperial Institute. They were plain, solid and large. But partly because of their obscure locations behind the buildings fronting Queen's Gate and Exhibition Road, and partly because of their use as adjuncts to institutions centred elsewhere, they were comparatively little-known parts of the complex of Victorian South Kensington. Their latterday surroundings did nothing to recall their origin as the home of a series of annual international exhibitions inaugurated in 1871, when visitors could look from the flowered, first-floor promenade of each range to its counterpart across the breadth of an Italian garden. (For this chapter see plans b, c between pages 54–5 and fig. 37 on page 223, and Plates 1, 55, 56, 57a, 57b, 118a.)
Like most of the buildings of that period at South Kensington these galleries owed their existence largely to Henry Cole. In 1867 the Paris exhibition had given favourable publicity to the methods and productions of his 'school' of design. Back in England, he turned his thoughts late in that year to the renewal of the sequence of international exhibitions in rather different form. Regular and recurrent exhibitions were one of his oldest enthusiasms, and had that of 1862 been fully successful he would have secured at least the nucleus of a permanent home for them then. The site envisaged at that time was now destined to house a natural history museum. But elsewhere on the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners' property the establishment of permanent exhibition buildings was attractive. Despite the popularity of the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society under Cole's management the Society had failed to make it profitable to themselves or, in consequence, remunerative to their landlords, the Commissioners. Despite, also, the capital spent by the latter on the surrounding arcades these remained unfinished. There was therefore the prospect of associating the Commissioners' completion of the arcades with the erection of exhibition buildings that would help the Society by again bringing to it the relative prosperity that it had enjoyed during the exhibition year of 1862; while both the Society and the exhibition authorities would benefit from the newly building Albert Hall, which was in turn intended (if not well designed) to find some of its raison d'être in exhibitions and flower-shows.
Thus the exhibition arrangements for 1871 were evolved in a multilateral discussion between the Commissioners, the Hall's 'provisional committee', and the Society; or specifically between Cole, Charles Grey, Edgar Bowring and Henry Scott, all of whom had interrelated allegiances to the various institutions of the South Kensington complex. Unlike the preparations for the 1862 exhibition those for 1871 contained no role for the Society of Arts.
The buildings, unlike those of 1851 and 1862, were to be wholly permanent. This derived naturally from the fact that 1871 was to initiate a departure from the enormous general exhibitions held in Europe and America since 1851. It was admitted, as Grey wrote in July 1868, that 'the world seems absolutely surfeited with international exhibitions and to recoil, almost with horror, from the idea of a renewal of similar undertakings'. (fn. 6) The commissioners of the chief countries represented at Paris in 1867 had themselves urged that future exhibitions should be smaller, and less expensive for exhibitors. (fn. 7) The new exhibition would therefore be selective, 'prepared expressly to shew novelty, invention or special excellence', and would illustrate scientific inventions and a few classes only of manufacturing industry. By a reversion to the Prince Consort's ideas, it would commence a series planned 'as a means of testing the progress of the country in art and science as applied to industry'. (fn. 8) The exhibitions would be annual, and, with the aid of art-exhibitions and flower-shows, would review the chief branches of industry in cycles of five-to-ten years' duration. The permanence of their home would also have the merit (although no one seems to have said so) of avoiding the embarrassments that had attended the disposal of the structures put up in 1851 and 1862.
At the end of March 1868 the Albert Hall committee formulated a scheme. (fn. 9) From the beginning Henry Scott was closely involved in the project as employee (and future secretary) of the Commissioners, head of the architectural office of Cole's Department, executive architect of the hall, and honorary secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, and it was he who told Grey in the following month that the Society would support annual international exhibitions and flower-shows. Grey gave this hopeful news for South Kensington to the Queen. (fn. 10)
At that stage the proposed building was a large glass-roofed structure covering the 'ante-garden', that is, an area south of the sites ultimately chosen. Together with the completion of the arcades it would have cost some £164,000. (fn. 11) It is clear that Scott's assistant in the Department, J. W. Wild, was contributing significantly to the design. In April Cole noted 'with Scott settling treatment of Arcades and with Wild', and in May 'Examining Wild's plans for Exhibitions —revising projects—Hort. Gardens with Scott'. (fn. 12) Twentyfive years later, after this project had been abandoned, Wild's obituarist, the director of the South Kensington Museum, C. Purdon Clarke (himself an architect), said that Wild had been commissioned to design proposed but abortive 'permanent Exhibition Buildings on the site of the present Imperial Institute'. (fn. 13) This presumably refers, although the site is mis-stated, to the 'ante-garden' plan. One version of that scheme is probably illustrated by an undated drawing which shows a building in the antegarden that followed the general forms of Fowke's conservatory at the north end of the garden. Glass galleries were to surmount the east and west arcades (Plate 55a). (fn. 14)
Purdon Clarke went on to say roundly that Wild 'designed . . . the Eastern and Western Galleries' that were in fact built. (fn. ) This is not evident from the records, and in contemporary notices Scott is given as the architect. But in the official Report Wild is named as Scott's assistant. (fn. 15)
Between June 1868 and January 1869 the intended building was altered to consist solely of two substantial ranges to be built along the outer sides of the east and west arcades. (fn. 16) The reason is not known: possibly the new arrangement was thought better for completing the arcades, or the Society became less willing to give up its antegarden. Cole later implied that the motive was economy, (fn. 17) but in fact the estimate evidently went up, to £175,000. (fn. 18) The layout was not really as convenient for exhibitions as a single building or closely grouped buildings, but seems to have been thought better suited to the predominant aim of the common prosperity of exhibitions, garden and hall. And it conformed to the Prince Consort's idea of important buildings round a central garden. (fn. 19)
Meanwhile a struggle was in progress by Cole, Scott and (very forcefully) Grey to persuade the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners to provide the money. The participation of Cole, 'the best abused man in England', as Grey described him, (fn. 20) was a mixed advantage, although Scott told Grey that Cole's 'persistent stream of invention' would overcome all obstacles. (fn. 21) In view of the unprofitable history of the 1862 Exhibition and the Horticultural Society's garden some members of the Commissioners' Finance Committee were reluctant to 'throw good money after bad'. (fn. 22) Scott thought the objectors 'simply, rabid opponents to everything that is calculated to do them any credit'. (fn. ) The Queen had the financial aspect hopefully referred in January 1869 to Sir Alexander Spearman, (fn. 23) whose involvement with the Albert Memorial promised a more sympathetic attitude. The Queen's goodwill towards a project so close to the Prince Consort's ideals was natural, but it was not unconnected with a wish, also, to find employment for one of her sons-in-law at Kensington, where, as Grey foresaw, 'there would probably be little difficulty in giving Prince Christian much interesting occupation, in superintending and directing part of the preliminary arrangements'. (fn. 24)
Scott brought his estimate down to £135,000 in February, when he was envisaging double galleries of a total width of some 105 feet on each side of the garden, extending south to rebuilt south-east and south-west entrances. (fn. 25) Then in April, when Spearman made a discouraging report, Scott cut his design down drastically to an estimated cost of £75,000. He stopped his ranges short where the arcades broke out to the wider ante-garden, and reduced them to single galleries thirty feet wide. (fn. 26)
Cole suggested that Prince Christian himself should supply the money. (fn. 27) But the Commissioners had an undoubted moral obligation to do something in conformity with their charter, and the recent fortune of their estate could be thought to recommend their financing and controlling any new enterprises themselves. After an appeal by Grey to their President, Lord Derby, the Commissioners agreed in July to raise the money by a further mortgage of their property. (fn. 28)
In a brief triangular correspondence, Scott, Grey and Lord Granville (an influential Commissioner) debated Cole's position. He wanted to be superintendent or executive officer, but the prospect of his 'decided unpopularity' caused the Commissioners to think that Scott should nominally hold the post. As the latter said, however, the reality 'will be perfectly patent to all who know "Henry Cole C.B."'. Scott declined to supplant 'one to whom I owe so much and who has shown such generosity to me' merely because 'the public is greatly indebted to him and cannot forgive him'. Cole, who was kept in ignorance of the discussion, became superintendent and Scott secretary of the exhibitions. (fn. 29)
Later in July 1869 the 1851 Commissioners announced that the series would be inaugurated in 1871. In addition to a flower-show, an artexhibition and a display of scientific inventions the first year's exhibition was to show pottery, woollens and worsteds, and educational appliances. No prizes were to be awarded. (fn. 30) Arrangement was to be primarily by classes, and only secondarily by nationality: this constant aim of previous exhibitions could again not be fully achieved. (fn. 31)
In August a General Purposes Committee, established by the Commissioners, began work. The chairman was Earl de Grey and Ripon, and the other fourteen members, who included Granville, Grey, Bowring and Cole, with Scott as secretary, embodied considerable experience of the twenty years' history of international exhibitions. (fn. 32) In November they accepted tenders for the execution of Scott's buildings. The main contract was given to Lucas Brothers at £74,031, and that for the terra-cotta to M. H. Blanchard at £1,950. (fn. 33) (fn. 1)
Scott was to receive for his architectural services 3¼ per cent of £75,000, or £2,437 10s. (Cole told Scott about that time 'that I thought he ought to have £1,000 plus his draughtsmens exp[enses] . . . and he seemed quite content'.) His clerk of works, C. R. Dillon, A.R.I.B.A., was to receive 3½ guineas a week. (fn. 34)
The digging of foundations began in November 1869. (fn. 35) (fn. 2) The Commissioners' employment of the 'artists, students and modellers' of the South Kensington Museum was formally authorized by the Science and Art Department in February 1870. (fn. 36) They were supervised by F. W. Moody, (fn. 37) although Cole once mentions Townroe's name also. (fn. 38) (fn. 3)
The two ranges of galleries were each about 620 feet long and on the first floor opened to terraces formed on the roofs of the existing arcades. Along these terraces terra-cotta balustrades carried 'light ornamental carved wood columns, supporting a trellis-work of iron . . . interwoven with vines and creepers'. (fn. 39) At the northern ends, 'conservatories' on top of the quadrant arcades connected the galleries with the conservatory of the Royal Horticultural Society and so with the Albert Hall (Plates 55b, 56a). Descriptions in periodicals, obviously inspired from South Kensington, noted the 'decorated Italian style' of the building and the use of materials to match the then-erecting Science Schools (Huxley Building). (fn. 40) The red Fareham bricks were laid in dark grey or black mortar. (fn. 41) The Companion to the British Almanac thought the whole 'made little claim to architectural character'. (fn. 42)
In their internal arrangement the galleries adhered to the 'South Kensington' system of lighting evolved by Fowke and Redgrave for the Sheepshanks Gallery. Side-lit galleries on the ground floor were surmounted by top-lit galleries for works of art illumined on Redgrave's 'antidazzle' principles. (fn. 43) The colours were pale green and chocolate with tiled floors of dark red. (fn. 44) Crimson draperies were evidently used, and the long skylights veiled by white cloth studded with gold stars (Plates 56b, 57a, b). (fn. 45)
Behind the Eastern Gallery near its southern end an additional court was built in 1870–1 with a rear frontage on Exhibition Road (spanning the present north-east corner of Imperial Institute Road). This was the French court, paid for by the French Government despite the upsets at home. (fn. 46) Its sober arcuated brickwork, probably designed in Scott's office, surrounded a formal garden (Plates 55c, 67c). (fn. 47) The Belgian Government also built its own annexe further north in 1872. (fn. 48)
The first exhibition was opened on 1 May 1871, a month after the Albert Hall, by the Prince of Wales. From the Royal Horticultural Society's conservatory he moved in procession to the galleries 'through a lane of smiling, welldressed people, very nearly three-quarters of a mile in extent'. (fn. 49) Cole was delighted: the galleries were 'the best ever erected'—an opinion shared by others. (fn. 50) The exhibition was a success and well over a million visitors yielded the Commissioners a profit of nearly £18,000. (fn. 51) Plans were prepared for the next ten years (fn. 52) but only three more exhibitions were held. Attendances and receipts fell by about a half in 1872, and in 1874, when there were less than half a million visitors, the loss was over £17,000: the net loss on the series was some £14,000. (fn. 53) Cole attributed the failure to the refusal of the Royal Horticultural Society to continue in 1873 the easy facilities for access to its garden or the use of its conservatory as a place of assembly and promenade— an important amenity unprovided for in the galleries. (fn. 54) The Society thus 'destroyed the International Exhibitions'. (fn. 55) But the decline was already marked in 1872, and although the Vienna exhibition of 1873 was perhaps an added difficulty, (fn. 56) it is likely that the jaded public appetite could not be refreshed merely by the reduced scope of still very miscellaneous offerings. (fn. 57) And the uncompact plan was not ideal. A critic of 'South Kensington' traced the course of a visitor through the Albert Hall, up and round the conservatory, then down 'to the upper floors of one or other of the Exhibition galleries proper. The course of experimental, hopeless wandering which then opens to the hapless explorer is almost beyond belief. . .' (fn. 58)
The final cost of the buildings was between about £93,000 and £98,000. In addition the Commissioners bought the French and Belgian annexes, paid some £5,400 for 'machinery', and, to lessen exhibitors' costs, spent £15,250 on cases and fittings. (fn. 59)
In the late 1880's the Horticultural garden site was reconstructed. Prince Consort Road truncated the northern ends of the galleries by some 55 feet, and about the same distance southward of them was laid out Imperial Institute Road, to which they were connected in 1891 by entrances in the style of the newly building Imperial Institute. (fn. 60) This and the new Royal College of Music now intervened between the two ranges of galleries. As part, physically, of the Imperial Institute, however, two connecting galleries extending east and west were also built behind it in 1891–2 (Plates 1, 69a; fig. 37 on page 223). (fn. 61) (fn. 4) The Eastern Gallery was further truncated in c. 1910 by the Goldsmiths' Company Extension of the City and Guilds College.
Immediately after the end of the exhibitions in 1874 the Eastern Gallery had been leased to the India Office (and subsequently to the Office of Works) for the Government's Indian collection. (fn. 62) This was opened as the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum in May 1880. (fn. 63) (Sir) George Birdwood of the India Office made a strong plea to the Department for the replacement of the pale green and chocolate colouring by a dull tawny-orange, and generally for the creation of an 'Indian' background to the exhibits (fn. 64) but this seems not to have been done. It was a remarkable collection although for visitors to the main South Kensington Museum it was, as the Department's secretary said in 1897, 'really dreadfully buried'. (fn. 65) It remained here until the gallery was demolished in 1956 (fn. 66) and is now (1974) partly displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Western Gallery had been utilized in 1876 for an important loan exhibition of scientific instruments organized by the Science and Art Department. (fn. 67) The Department retained possession informally until its tenure from the 1851 Commissioners was confirmed, with some reluctance on the Treasury's part, in 1883. (fn. 68) Subsequently the gallery was leased to the Office of Works. (fn. 5) It housed a miscellaneous 'science' collection, through which a policeman trod 'the loneliest beat in London'. (fn. 69) In 1923 the reorganized collection was removed to the new Science Museum and the gallery housed the Imperial War Museum until its removal to Southwark in 1936. (fn. 70) Latterly the gallery was again used by the Science Museum until it was demolished, together with the Imperial Institute's galleries, in c. 1962. A short length of the rear wall survived in 1974 behind Nos. 171–176 Queen's Gate.