Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER XVI - Royal College of Music
Established in 1883 in the present building of the Royal College of Organists, the Royal College of Music was by 1887 seeking a larger site and early in that year was informally offered one on the west side of Exhibition Road, on behalf of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners. As the City and Guilds Institute had done, the College hankered after a location in Queen's Gate, (fn. 2) but would probably have gone to Exhibition Road if late in that year an ironmaster from Leeds, Samson Fox, had not offered the Prince of Wales, as patron of the College, £30,000 towards its new building. (fn. 3) (The donor of the students' hostel nearby, (Queen) Alexandra House, that was similarly under the patronage of the Prince and Princess, had just been given a baronetcy.) The prospect that the College would be able to house itself handsomely probably helped a change of plan by the Commissioners, whose own ideas for the rearrangement of their estate were fluid. By February 1888 this would have placed the College centrally on the estate's axis (as it was ultimately to be built), a little north of its present position, and facing across a garden to a new road on its south, not its north, side. The Director of the College, Sir George Grove, had the architect J. J. Stevenson prepare drawings in May: a theatre on the plan of Bayreuth was contemplated, but for want of space the Conservatoire at Brussels was taken as a model instead. (fn. 4) Then in the summer opinion among the Commissioners veered against any building on this axis, south of the Albert Hall. The Prince of Wales, who as well as fostering the College had responsibilities as President of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners, seems himself to have had doubts about so prominent a position for 'château Fox'. (fn. 5) A site in Exhibition Road was again appointed for the College, an architectural competition was projected in July, and a building committee, on which Fox was to be active, held its first meeting in November. (fn. 6) It was soon arranging to compare the recent buildings of academies of music in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rome, Milan, Boston and Cincinnati as well as of the Guildhall School of Music. (fn. 7) But Grove and Fox both thought the site too small. (fn. 8) Then the Commissioners, dropping the idea of an open vista south of the Hall, offered to the College for a nominal rent the present site, on the south side of a new road (Prince Consort Road, plan c between pages 54–5). It was valued at £45,000. (fn. 9) The lease of the site, a square of 200-feet sides, for 999 years from Midsummer 1890 at £5 per annum, was dated 30 December 1891. (fn. 10)
By February 1889 the College had been told it would have to have its design approved by a consultant architect of the Commissioners, and to spend more than £30,000 on the building. (fn. 11) There seems to have been some pressure from the Commissioners for prompt action by the College if it wanted to accept the offer of the site. Partly to save time and partly (no doubt) to be more certain of the Commissioners' approval the College abandoned the architectural competition and appointed the experienced (Sir) A. W. Blomfield in March to provide the design for submission to Alfred Waterhouse as the Commissioners' adviser. (fn. 12) (Blomfield himself, however, later said simply that he had been chosen on the recommendation of the Prince of Wales. (fn. 13) )
By May Blomfield had sketch-plans ready, to an estimated cost of £45,000. Fox promptly supplied the extra £15,000 over his former benefaction. (fn. 14) (In April a disappointed J. J. Stevenson offered to give Blomfield access to the results of his planning: Blomfield told Grove he would 'no doubt' avail himself of the offer, but it is not known if he did. (fn. 15) )
The site was in some ways imposing but apart from the disservice done to any façade-design by a north aspect it had the disadvantage that the new road was made some eighteen feet above the site's base-level. To compensate for the two basement storeys required Blomfield wanted to omit an upper storey but reinstated it at the representation of Waterhouse, who insisted on the need for height to enable the elevation to sustain proximity to the two large blocks of flats that were then intended to be built on either side. Blomfield's plans were halted in November 1889, and again in the early part of 1890. One change he made in his planning at the latter period was the omission of a large lecture room or hall from the main building. Instead of occupying all the centre of the second and third storeys it was to be placed at the back, and the main block largely devoted to practice or recital rooms. (fn. 16) Blomfield had been insistent to his employers that his elevational design must wait on the final arrangement of his plan: (fn. 17) in the end he had the task of providing a façade for a tall building consisting mainly of small or moderate-sized rooms in storeys of nearly equal and rather modest height (Plate 71c). The ceiling-heights are, in fact, generally lower than in the College's former, and smaller, premises. This small-scaled subdivision made it difficult to design a monumental elevation, and The Builder criticized Blomfield's Royal Academy drawing of the front in 1892 for lack of architectural interest. (fn. 18)
Unlike the old building, the College was divided into halves for male and female pupils, with separate entrances and staircases, although lateral corridors joined them. (fn. 19)
The design was intended to be developed backwards in two quadrangles, but this extension was deferred. (fn. 20)
The foundation stone was laid in July 1890, when Fox's Leeds Forge brass band provided some music (and, in the recollection of a student, 'nearly blew the marquee away'). (fn. 21) The contractor was John Thompson of Peterborough, whose estimated price was £41,096. Blomfield thought the total cost, including his own fees, would be £47,000. (fn. 22) The specified materials included Leicester or Bracknell facing bricks, dressings of Weldon stone outside and Ancaster stone inside, and green roof-slates. Except for the oak entrance doors the wood was almost all from the Baltic. Relatively little money was to be spent on internal decoration except for the entrance hall where Fox provided £1,000 for embellishment: the ceiling here and in the Council Room was to be in 'Jackson's patent ornamental plasterwork'. (fn. 23) (fn. 1) A columned basement room was also more elaborately treated, at the expense of George Donaldson, to house his collection of instruments: (fn. 25) spandrels in the arcades were painted by the Belgian artist, Gaston de Vaere. (fn. 26)
The organs were provided by Brindley and Foster of Sheffield, the furniture by Hampton and Sons and mosaic floors by Messrs. Diespeker of Holborn Viaduct. (fn. 27)
Blomfield approved of the builder's work. (fn. 28) The internal sound-proofing, for which use was made of 'double cork pugging' and 'Willesden paper', (fn. 29) set an acceptable standard for attempted emulation in more recent additions.
The formal opening by the Prince of Wales was on 2 May 1894. (fn. 30) A few days later Jerome K. Jerome began a series of attacks on Fox in his weekly To-day, asserting that Fox's benefaction had been intended to give a false impression of his commercial standing whereas his resources came from fraudulent share-pushing. Fox (who died in 1903) was to obtain a place in the Dictionary of National Biography as an 'inventor and benefactor', but after a prolonged libel action in 1897 he was awarded damages of only one farthing. (fn. 31) He remained untitled.
The hall at the rear was a temporary erection only, and in 1897 the College decided on a competition between three architects—W. J. Ancell, A. Blomfield Jackson and Sidney R. J. Smith—to provide a permanent building for a concert-hall-cum-theatre and an examination room. (fn. 32) Sir Arthur Blomfield was indignant at his supersession and appealed to the Prince of Wales. In reply to the Prince's enquiries (Sir) Hubert Parry, the Director, explained that this was chiefly because of 'very lively disputes' in 1895 about Blomfield's charges. Also, the College wanted to employ specialists in concert-hall design. If not quite that, Sidney Smith was included on the strength of 'a remarkably successful Concert room' at the Cripplegate Institute, (fn. 33) and it was his design that was chosen by the assessor, John Belcher, in 1898. (fn. 34) It was built, with an examination room underneath, by G. H and A. Bywaters in 1899 and completed for opening in 1901, when its resonant acoustics were noticed (Plate 71b). The organ is by J. W. Walker. (fn. 35)
After the war of 1914–18 the examination room was converted into the Parry Opera Theatre (opened March 1921). (fn. 36)
A canopy was added to the entrance in the 1920's. In 1949 all the windows of the front, previously leaded, were fitted with plate glass.
A large extension on the south side, containing teaching and practice rooms, library and recital hall, was built in 1963–4 to the design of the architects of the adjacent Imperial College, Norman and Dawbarn (opened 1965). A Museum of Historical Instruments designed by Philip Radinger Associates was added on the south-east side in 1968–9 and opened in 1970. A new rehearsal block for the Opera School, designed by Norman and Dawbarn, was opened in April 1972. (fn. 36)