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. All rights reserved.
'Natural History Museum', in Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area, (London, 1975) pp. 201-216. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol38/pp201-216 [accessed 29 February 2024]
CHAPTER XIII - Natural History Museum
In 1858 the zoological, botanical, geological and mineralogical collections of the British Museum were kept at Bloomsbury with the collections of antiquities, books and manuscripts. In July of that year the most eminent British naturalists signed a memorial to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli. This proclaimed that 'as the chief end and aim of natural history is to demonstrate the harmony which pervades the whole, and the unity of principle, which bespeaks the unity of the Creative Cause, it is essential that the different classes of natural objects should be preserved in juxtaposition under the roof of one great building'. Their immediate purpose was to avert the dispersion of the collections, or even their removal from Bloomsbury, where easy access to the great library was highly valued. (fn. 8) But the congestion of the museum imperatively demanded relief, and when it became apparent that the Conservative Government was unlikely to authorize the further enlargement or reconstruction of the newly expanded building the entire removal of the natural history collections was an attractive alternative. (fn. 9) The construction of 'one great building' on a new site was to take nearly a quarter of a century. Accidental causes were, however, responsible for much of the delay, and the enterprise was sustained by the ardour of Victorian polemic, the boldness of Victorian exploration and the zest of Victorian curiosity. It was by no means immune from official economizing, but it did not suffer so profoundly from governmental indifference as did scientific collections less relevant to current controversies or less appealing to the popular capacity for wonderment. The museum eventually raised in 1873–81 was very big and expensive, symmetrical and consistent in its main aspect, and the work virtually throughout of the architect commissioned to execute it. Yet Alfred Waterhouse's building was intended merely as part of a larger whole that alone would have matched the first aspirations of its chief instigator.
This was (Sir) Richard Owen (1804–92), whose voice can probably be heard in the memorial of 1858. In 1856 he had moved to Bloomsbury from his post as professor of comparative anatomy at the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, to become superintendent of the natural history departments. He was to retain this position until the new museum was opened. Its completion owed much to his vigour, but the attendant difficulties also owed something to his combativeness. (For this chapter see plans b,c,d between pages 54–5, and Plates 60–65, 66a,b,c.)
Preliminary plans by Owen: the Queen's Gate site
Early in 1859 Owen made a report to the Trustees of the British Museum on the removal of the natural history collections, accompanied by a rough plan for a new building to house them. (fn. 10) The plan did not purport to suggest the architectural form, but shows that he envisaged a very extensive assemblage of single-storeyed galleries ranged at right angles to longitudinal galleries at front and rear. The lighting was to be from the top, not directly overhead but from the junction of walls and roofs, as in the Hunterian Museum and the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street. In these respects some elements of Waterhouse's final design were already adumbrated. Owen's chief desideratum in a museum was space, (fn. 11) and a striking aspect of this project was the great area of ground it would have covered in solid building. By reason of its single-storey arrangement, it would have occupied some ten or eleven acres—that is, three times more than the museum as built. Owen's conception was that a museum should be a proportionate microcosm of nature itself, and large enough to exhibit the varieties and developments of life on earth; to show, for example, 'how the type of the class may have risen from that of a lower, or may be mounting to that of a higher class', and to give a 'comprehensive, philosophic and connected view' of its subject-matter. (fn. 12) He did not scorn the direct demonstration of physical fact: he would show the 'largest examples' of elephant to exhibit 'the maximum of mass that can be supported and moved on dry land by a living animal', and a well-stuffed whale 'as an example of the power of the Creator as manifested by the hugeness of the creature'. (fn. 13) The expository and public-oriented role that Owen desired for the museum led him to advocate the exhibition of a high proportion of the collections: 'the intelligent wageman, tradesman or professional man . . . comes in the confidence of seeing the series of exhibited specimens so complete, and so displayed, as to enable him to identify his own specimen with one there ticketed with its proper name and locality'. (fn. 14) He planned to include a lecture theatre where heads of departments should explain their collections 'in short, elementary, and free Courses of Lectures', and for a central apartment containing two special displays. One was to be of 'specimens selected to show the type-characters of the principal groups of Organized Beings: it would form an Epitome of Natural History, and would convey to the eye, in the easiest way, an elementary knowledge of living Nature'. This very characteristic expression of Owen's concern with the relation of actual to archetypal forms came to be called the 'Index Museum'. The other display was to show such illustrations of each 'Class, Order and Genus' as were afforded by the native species of the British Isles (the 'British Natural History Museum'). (fn. 10)
A potential area for the museum was the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners' estate (fn. 15) and late in 1859 the Trustees considered the cost of an addition to the site in Bloomsbury compared with the removal of the natural history collections to South Kensington: the area in mind had dwindled to eight or possibly five acres. The estimated costs of land and building ranged between £600,000 and £1,280,000 for various schemes, in all of which the South Kensington alternative was the cheaper by sums ranging from £210,000 to £415,000. (fn. 16) In January 1860 the Trustees decided by a narrow majority to remove the collections (fn. 17) and negotiations proceeded with the 1851 Commissioners for the purchase of a five-acre site on the east side of Queen's Gate. The boundary of the Royal Horticultural Society's intended garden would have made it long and narrow—about 1,100 feet by 200 feet—but closely built-over, mainly in two storeys (as was now proposed), it would have given a great floorarea. The Trustees hoped to get it for £5,000 per acre but the Commissioners asked £10,000 per acre, which they thought only half its market value. (fn. 18) In August, however, a Select Committee of the House of Commons reported adversely on the scheme. It noted that apart from Owen 'the whole of the scientific naturalists examined before your Committee, including the Keepers of all the Departments of Natural History in the British Museum, are of opinion that an exhibition on so large a scale tends alike to the needless bewilderment and fatigue of the public, and the impediment of the studies of the scientific visitor'. (fn. 19) Divergence of opinion was to recur when the new museum came to be built, between Owen's inclination towards a comprehensive public display and the preference of others for a more selective exhibition attached to a studycollection. Owen's ambitions were severely criticized in the House of Commons in 1861, but he enjoyed the general support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day, Gladstone, who was himself a Trustee. A personal friendship developed, based in a common concern with the relations of science and religion. (T. H. Huxley distrusted both of them.) This meant that in contrast to other enterprises at South Kensington the Trustees' building plans had more frequent support from the Treasury, which sometimes figured in the unusual role of a goad to departmental activity on behalf of the Trustees' project. (fn. 1)
Following friendly correspondence between Owen and Gladstone in August 1861 (fn. 21) the Treasury reopened negotiations with the 1851 Commissioners, who early in the following year again offered the Queen's Gate site (then temporarily appropriated for the Western Annexe of the impending International Exhibition, plan a between pages 54–5), on the same terms as before. (fn. 22) In May 1862 (Sir) Henry Hunt, consultant surveyor to the Office of Works, and also the Commissioners' surveyor, prepared plans for Owen's scheme, to cover the five acres at a building cost of £500,000. (fn. 19) The character of the scheme is shown in the frontispiece of Owen's publication of 1862, On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History. At the front were two-storeyed longitudinal galleries. Behind them, the centre of the building was occupied by a circular lecture theatre, with the Index and British Natural History Museums over it: on either side, two-storeyed galleries were ranged at right angles to the front but alternated with lower and narrower top-lit galleries. This centre-and-wings arrangement was to survive in the building as finally executed, and so did the alternation of main and subsidiary galleries at the rear. Attached at one end was a library and official residences.
In the same month Gladstone introduced a Bill to authorize the removal of the collections. (fn. 23) The recently widowed Queen was anxious that this step towards the realization of the Prince's plans for South Kensington should be taken. (fn. 24) But there was much hostility in Parliament to the removal of collections from central London to the new suburb, as well as to Owen's expansive ambitions; (fn. 25) Gladstone's estimate of £600,000 or £700,000 as the total cost made him seem a spendthrift; and enough members on the Government side of the House of Commons voted with the Opposition to defeat the Bill. The Queen was extremely annoyed. (fn. 26) Owen was, however, encouraged by Gladstone to persevere, and prepared a more modest scheme, drawn out by Hunt in September, to cover four acres for £350,000. (fn. 27)
The present site: Fowke's competition design
Later in the summer of 1862 Gladstone, in his triple capacity as Trustee of the British Museum, 1851 Commissioner and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was turning to another scheme—to relieve the Commissioners of the embarrassing 1862 Exhibition building, and at the same time give the natural history collections (with other museum collections) an economical home, by the Government's purchase of the Exhibition site. Some thought the great nave of the building 'a grand and imposing space for the exhibition of specimens of the largest sized animals'. Owen consented, although he considered the exhibition spaces too lofty. (fn. 28) The House of Commons rather doubtingly approved the purchase of the land in June 1863. Buying out the contractors' interest in the building itself, however, required a further Parliamentary vote. This was the heyday of the independent Member, the building was much disliked, and in July (as has been seen in Chapter IX) the back-benchers of both parties combined to veto the acquisition of the building. The contractors proceeded to pull it down, and with it the prospective home of the natural history collections.
But the Government now had at its disposal the spacious site where the museum was eventually to be raised (the Commissioners making it over to the Office of Works in September 1864 (fn. 29) ). In January 1864 the First Commissioner of Works, W. F. Cowper, announced an open competition, with prizes of £400, £250 and £100, for the design of a museum-complex here that understandably but rather confusingly became known as the South Kensington museums competition. A natural history museum and a museum to house the collection of the Commissioners of Patents were to occupy the eastern half, and outline plans were also to be submitted for the whole site. Competitors were referred to Hunt's realization of Owen's second Queen's Gate plan of 1862 for the space-requirements of the natural history collections. (fn. 30) The Trustees promptly complained to the Treasury that they had not been consulted by the Office of Works, and reprimanded Owen when it emerged that the Office of Works had referred directly to him (fn. 31) —an intimation that the museum might prove to be many-voiced. However maladroit the handling of this announcement, the Office of Works improved upon previous practice in the choice of judges. The Government Offices competition in 1856 had attracted a large number of eminent architects but failed to provide a convincing professional judgment upon them. The five judges chosen in April 1864—(Sir) William Tite, (Sir) James Pennethorne, James Fergusson, the painter David Roberts and Lord Elcho, M.P. (fn. 32) —were likely to give a clear and reasonable verdict. Considering the magnitude of the prospective commission it was disappointing that few of the more eminent architects of the day competed. (fn. 33) (fn. 2) According to The Builderonly two of the thirty-three entries were 'Gothic'. Two were 'Greek', but even Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's had 'no chance of selection', The Builder thought. (fn. 34)
Tite, Fergusson and Elcho had been advocates of the demolition of the Exhibition building, but when the awards were announced in May it was found that the judges had given the first prize to none other than that building's architect, Captain Francis Fowke. It may be doubted whether they were ignorant of the authorship of the pseudonymous design, but Fergusson later spoke of their 'surprise' and the well-informed Henry Cole seems to have thought that Tite's surprise, at least, was genuine. (fn. 35) The second prize went to Professor Robert Kerr and the third to Cuthbert Brodrick. (fn. 36) Unlike Fowke's and Kerr's designs, Brodrick's seems not to have been illustrated in periodicals.
Fowke's design (Plate 60a; fig. 31) had been worked out with the help (privately employed by him) of his architectural office in the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, a fact of which the contentious second prizewinner complained. (fn. 37) One member of that office, John Liddell, who later in 1864 became Fowke's chief draughtsman, subsequently grew discontented. He had contemplated competing himself and after Fowke's death in 1865 publicly claimed to have originated the external treatment of the winning design, citing the undeniable fact that Fowke had shared the premium with him. On these grounds he assailed successive First Commissioners of Works in 1866 with demands for employment to carry out the design, which were roundly rejected by W. F. Cowper from 'respect for the memory and character of the late Captain Fowke'. (fn. 38) As late as 1879 Liddell was writing to the press of his 'sole authorship of the external design'. (fn. 39) (fn. 3)
Fowke's participation had evidently been at the urging of Henry Cole, the Department's secretary, (fn. 42) and although the Department was not officially associated with the design some feared that Fowke's success might jeopardize the museum's prospects by attracting to it the suspicions nursed against Cole and his Department. (fn. 43)
Fowke would have placed his natural history museum on the north side of the site and incorporated the buildings (of his own designing) on the south side of the Royal Horticultural Society's garden. In the centre a very grand sequence of apartments included a circular staircase hall and a large lecture theatre. He provided the essential galleries in an east wing, but envisaged the museum's expansion into a balancing west wing. (fn. 34) His design for the entire site, despite its symmetry, was so arranged that it could be executed piecemeal. (fn. 45) It was, on the whole, well received. The Builder, identifying the style as Bramantesque, liked it with some reservations. The Building Newsthought it unchaste but effective. The Companionto the Almanacfound the façade rich and striking and discerned 'a feeling for largeness of style and brilliancy of effect': The Athenaeum, on the other hand, while calling it an 'effective and splendid design', noticed 'a certain smoothness and smallness of grace . . . a lack of emphatic powers . . . [and] characteristic art'. (fn. 46) Fergusson himself later defended the judges' choice of this 'very beautiful design' which was 'thoroughly nineteenth century' and would have 'marked an epoch in the history of architecture in this country'. (fn. 47)
Fowke's natural history museum alone would have cost some £431,000 and the whole complex some £1,895,000, at 9d. to 1s. per cubic foot. (fn. 48) Unlike Kerr, and unlike his own practice at the South Kensington Museum, Fowke followed Owen's plan in covering the whole area of the natural history museum with building, and observed Owen's precept that lighting came best from the angle of wall and roof: his management of this feature was close to Waterhouse's in the museum as built. (fn. 49) He did not, however, alternate his main galleries with subsidiary galleries of smaller dimensions, as Owen's scheme of 1862 had done, and was in this perhaps liable to offend museum opinion. (fn. 50)
Kerr additionally protested to the First Commissioner of Works that Fowke had not observed some of the conditions of the competition. (fn. 51) It seems that the protest was referred to the Council of the Institute of British Architects and rejected by them. (Kerr was sufficiently annoyed to blackball Fowke's subsequent application for membership of the Institute, to the disgust of Street and other members. (fn. 52) ) Kerr had, however, better acquainted himself than Fowke with prevailing opinion within the museum on its planning, and in March 1865 the Trustees told the Treasury that they preferred Kerr's design, (fn. 53) though the departmental heads were evidently not uniformly dissatisfied with Fowke's planning. (fn. 54) Owen went to Edinburgh to look at Fowke's newly built natural history museum there; (fn. 55) and Fowke was instructed to adjust his plan in consultation with the Trustees. (fn. 56) But his health collapsed and in December he died.
The appointment of Waterhouse and his plan of 1868
Scenting danger to Fowke's design Cole immediately appealed to the Queen, who was grieved by the death of someone so closely associated with the Prince's aims in South Kensington, (fn. 57) to protect it from mutilation: (fn. 58) The Builder, on the contrary, called for the commission to be given to Kerr. (fn. 59) Cowper championed Fowke's design to the Treasury, (fn. 60) and in February 1866 appointed an architect to execute it.
He was Alfred Waterhouse, then thirty-six years old and about to enjoy the fullness of professional fame. The Assize Courts in Manchester had demonstrated his skill in planning, which no doubt recommended him to a department becoming conscious that the arrangement of the museum might present unexpected difficulties. But as an executant of Fowke's elevational design his selection was implausible. (fn. 61) (fn. 4)
However, Waterhouse followed Owen to Edinburgh, (fn. 64) and examined Fowke's buildings and plans at South Kensington. (fn. 65) Then in June 1866 the Liberals went out and Cowper was succeeded as First Commissioner of Works by Lord John Manners. The vote of funds for the building was postponed, (fn. 66) and it was early in 1868 before the work was taken up again. (fn. 67) By then the 'patent' and other museums had disappeared from the scheme. Waterhouse's avowed role at South Kensington had also now changed significantly. He was commissioned to prepare plans but was also explicitly empowered to revise Fowke's elevations if necessary. Except as an important influence on Waterhouse's style this was the end of Fowke's design, and any lack of 'character' in the architecture was now sure to be remedied.
In March 1868 Waterhouse submitted plans, sections and perspective views to the Office of Works. At the Clydesdale Bank in Lombard Street (1864–5) and at Strangeways Prison, then just completing, he had used quasi-Romanesque motifs, and at South Kensington he now proposed a more comprehensive essay in 'the roundarched style common in Southern Germany so late as the 12th Century'. He thought it would 'afford both the grandeur and simplicity which should characterize a building of this description'. (fn. 68) The repetitive round arches of the recent museum and garden buildings nearby may also have been a factor. So too, more specifically, must have been the composition of Fowke's design with its coupled round-headed windows in roundheaded arches. The adoption of an early rundbogenstil rather than Fowke's Renaissance style Waterhouse later explained also by his wish to use a facing of terra-cotta blocks, presumably because it better assimilated any irregularities of laying, (fn. 69) but a contributory reason may have been Owen's advocacy of 'objects of natural history' as ornamentation. Owen had already suggested this to Fowke, but the idea may have appealed to Waterhouse particularly in a Romanesque context. (fn. 19)
Compared with the complex problems posed by his monumental designs for Manchester and London, the arrangement of a museum must have seemed to promise Waterhouse a relatively simple task. His 1868 plan in fact owed much to Fowke's and to the Owen-Hunt scheme that lay behind it (Plate 60b, 60c; fig. 32). (fn. 70) Like Fowke's, Waterhouse's building was at that stage still anchored to Fowke's southern Horticultural garden range, where Waterhouse placed departmental and general libraries. South of this the new building was to cover nearly three and a half acres, the same area as the museum as finally built. It stood back some 340 feet from Cromwell Road, Waterhouse visualizing an open quadrangle in front of it. Like all the other plans it was symmetrical. In the centre a grand circular staircase hall led, as in Fowke's design, to a lecture theatre. Waterhouse departed from Fowke in the direction required by the museum's officers, however, by introducing subdivisions to reduce the size of his compartments and increase the wall-space. On the ground floor the top-lit transverse galleries were bisected and the alternate subsidiary galleries were reintroduced. Basement workshops were placed along the sides. (fn. 71) How Waterhouse handled the elevations is unknown, but as well as angletowers there were twin towers flanking a great entrance evidently rather like that built. Over the staircase hall was a pointed dome. (fn. 72) When Cole saw this or a closely related design in January 1869 he called it 'a manufacturing sort of thing. Byzantine.' (fn. 73)
In April 1868 the Trustees approved the plan with some modifications. (fn. 74) But the prospect of progress was illusory. Waterhouse had estimated that his scheme would cost about £495,000, (fn. 68) and this was probably too much. Lord John Manners said the size would have to be reduced, and in July suggested alterations to the design: either the diminution of the angle towers on plan 'to give them a more elegant proportion', or the elevation of the dome to make it 'the grand feature of the composition' at the expense of the entrance towers and angle towers, which would have been omitted. The vote of funds was therefore deferred. (fn. 75) Then in December the Conservatives went out and the Liberals came back under Gladstone. This should have been helpful, particularly with Henry Layard at the Office of Works. But unfortunately for the South Kensington scheme Layard preferred a superb site on the Embankment between Hungerford and Waterloo Bridges, as part of an intended riverside sequence of public buildings, and nearly eighteen months were taken up with the study of this attractive scheme (Plate 61a). Virtually everyone was in favour of it, including Cole. But the difficulty of reconciling it with plans for the Embankment Gardens was a factor against it, and eventually it was found to be impracticable. (fn. 76)
The development of plans 1870–2
In May 1870 attention reverted to South Kensington. By then Layard had given way as Gladstone's First Commissioner of Works to A. S. Ayrton, whose zeal for economy was a hard fact in the situation for the next four years. Waterhouse's estimate for a building on the Embankment had been about £500,000. (fn. 77) Back at Kensington Ayrton had the limit reduced to £330,000. (fn. 78) In August 1870 Waterhouse produced a design to fit this figure. The museum was to be detached from the buildings of the Horticultural Society's garden and placed further south. (fn. 79) The new site was some five feet below the level of Cromwell Road and the very expensive task of remedying this was not attempted: instead Waterhouse placed his basement storey of workshops partly above ground level. (fn. 5) The length of frontage was increased to some 750 feet, compared with a length around 680 feet in the 1868 design and as built. Despite this and the detached position the estimated cost was reduced because the project was limited to the avowedly unfinished part of a greater whole. The side and rear architectural elevations were omitted. So it was to be built, and so it has remained.
In place of the elaborate Fowkesian entrance, staircase hall and lecture theatre, the centre was less compartmented and approximated to the present arrangement. The lecture theatre had vanished from the scheme, although it appears to have been some years before Owen himself fully realized this. When he did, he seems to have been less complaisant than was implied by a statement of the Trustees (who had been asked to explain this 'important omission' in 1873 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe). Possibly Owen was more eager that his colleagues should lecture than they were themselves. (fn. 81)
The function of a lecture theatre was partly fulfilled by the central hall. This was henceforward dedicated to Owen's exemplary Index Museum.
Another significant omission was of any compartment designed to house a general library. Owen's wish for the transference of the Banksian Library from Bloomsbury (fn. 82) was frustrated by the Trustees: a library had to be built up anew, (fn. 83) and accommodation was provided specifically for it only after the 1939–45 war.
A further economical simplification removed the cross-walls from the transverse galleries, which became even longer (200 feet) than in Fowke's design. The alternate subsidiary galleries were reserved for study. The whole covered about the same area as the executed version. The Treasury agreed to a vote of funds (fn. 84) and in September 1870 Waterhouse was added to the prominent architects then under contract to the Office of Works when he was officially appointed architect of 'the portion of a Building to meet the present wants of the Natural History Museum consisting of a Front, to the south . . . the Fronts of the Building to the East, West and North being altogether omitted'. His fee at 5 per cent of £330,000 was to be £16,500. (fn. 85)
Early in 1871 he produced full plans. (fn. 86) Two steps nearer the eventual arrangement were taken. The length of front was reduced, and a 'gallery of communication' was introduced between the front ranges and transverse galleries, which were again reduced in length. (fn. 87) But one feature of the interior was causing particular trouble. T. H. Huxley (when professor of biology at the Royal School of Mines) had been chief proponent of a scheme to exploit the alternation of public and reserved galleries by placing between them display cases permanently closed on the public side but accessible to students and staff. He had urged this on Layard in 1868, suggesting that on the public side the glass fronts should be 'like one long shop window'. (fn. 88) Waterhouse had planned for it in 1870–1 by reducing the walls between the public and reserved galleries to piers only. But the provenance of the suggestion did not recommend it to Owen, and Waterhouse soon found that, apart from this, the museum authorities rejected the arrangement for student access as unpractical. (fn. 89) The Duke of Devonshire's Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction, which was susceptible to Huxley's influence, tried to have a say in the planning of the museum, (fn. 90) and in 1874 and again in 1877 gave some support to the 'Huxley' arrangement. (fn. 91) But the museum authorities were unmoved, bringing criticism upon themselves for their supposed indifference to students' needs. (fn. 92)
On the utility of the alternate reserved galleries opinion in the museum was in fact becoming divided: probably J. E. Gray, the keeper of zoology (destined for the west wing), was mainly in favour, and G. R. Waterhouse, the keeper of geology (east wing) mainly against. The latter wanted particularly extensive alterations to Waterhouse's plan: he would have divided every gallery in two or three and altered the area between the front and transverse galleries. (fn. 93) The natural history departments had considerable autonomy that Owen could not over-ride, and the museum authorities asked the Office of Works for the two wings to be planned differently. (fn. 94) The Office resisted this rather sensible suggestion, which it thought arose merely from the inability of the keepers to agree among themselves and to be unbefitting 'a public museum of this importance'. (fn. 95) Waterhouse's reaction is not recorded, but his design had committed him generally to symmetry.
Later in 1871 a Parliamentary vote of £30,000 was made for the commencement of the museum (fn. 96) and by early in 1872 Waterhouse had made another set of plans. The chief development was that the site had been moved still nearer Cromwell Road, to its present position. (fn. 97) Inside the museum some difference between the two wings appeared, chiefly in the manner of separation of the front and transverse galleries, which still survives in the present building. The east, geological, wing was less subdivided than its keeper had wanted, but the openings between the public and reserve galleries there were now to be closed. In the rear central compartment Owen's British Natural History Museum is shown. On the elevation the central entrance was finished by a straight balustrade, and this, in harmony with Owen's conception of the museum, was to be surmounted by figures of Adam and Eve. Generally the elevational treatment was as executed, with some elements of Fowke's composition discernible in the wings and end pavilions (fn. 98) (Plates 60a, 61c).
Nevertheless, for some time Cole had been making a nuisance of himself on behalf of Fowke's original design, and his sympathizers in the House of Commons, George CavendishBentinck and Lord Elcho, tried belatedly to get rid of Waterhouse's 'abomination'. (fn. 99) (Cole received no co-operation, however, from his son-in-law, Fowke's son Frank, who saw the campaign chiefly as an attempt to put yet another commission into the hands of his father's successor, General Scott. (fn. 100) ) The party made no headway against Gladstone, and Fergusson's ridicule of Waterhouse's 'period' style in Macmillan's Magazine in January 1872 was equally ineffectual. But then the development of the design was thrown into reverse, and it was an action of Waterhouse himself that was the proximate cause. In July 1872 specifications were being prepared for invitations to tender. In the two years since the limit of expenditure had been set trade had revived and costs were going up. Wages in particular had been rising. Waterhouse therefore told the Office of Works that tenders might be 10 or 20 per cent over the 1870 estimate. If he supposed that this would be inertly received he misjudged Ayrton. The First Commissioner of Works held the £330,000 limit to be inviolable and deduced that the design should be cheapened by the requisite proportion to allow for cost-inflation. Some alarmed reassurance by Waterhouse was ineffective and he found himself obliged to cut down his design. (fn. 101) In September tenders were submitted: the lowest was £395,000. Waterhouse was once more set to work on reductions, and in December the Office of Works, under some pressure from the Treasury for work to begin, reluctantly accepted a revised tender of £352,000. (fn. 102) The contract with the builders, George Baker and Son of Lambeth, was concluded in February 1873. (fn. 103) By September the foundations were up to ground level. (fn. 104) (fn. c1)
The building of the museum 1873 onwards
To economize, some granite was replaced by Portland stone in the containing and approach walls. Slates replaced lead on the roofs, and brick replaced terra-cotta in the internal courts. Inside, plaster ceilings replaced wooden, and the decoration was both reduced and postponed. These changes are perceptible in the museum as built. But the most conspicuous reduction in the design was the intended replacement of the twin entrance towers by low spires. The two ventilation towers at the back were also for a time intended to be replaced by one lower tower. By 1876 the Conservatives were back in office, and the First Commissioner of Works, Lord Henry Lennox, was not unwilling to improve upon his Liberal predecessor's taste: (fn. 105) the museum officers also wanted the space afforded by the entrance towers. (fn. 106) Waterhouse was hopeful, exhibiting a view of the building with the entrance towers restored (Plate 61c). (fn. 107) But because of financial restrictions it was January 1878 before the Treasury authorized this, at a contract price of £13,778. (fn. 108) Waterhouse later said that this abortive economy of Ayrton's had increased the final cost of the building by £3,000. (fn. 109)
Between the towers, Waterhouse redesigned the centre of his façade to rise to the present gable. (fn. 110) In early photographs this is shown surmounted by the single figure of Adam.
Other alterations to the design internally had been made soon after building had begun. Having decided against the 'Huxley' display scheme, the museum authorities in December 1873 asked for the openings between the transverse galleries to be closed in the west wing as well as the east. (fn. 111) The dividing walls can hardly have been raised to any height by then, but an 'in-filling' between the proposed piers was determined upon and the blind arches between the transverse galleries still appear in the present building as pseudo-vestiges of an unimplemented scheme. Soon afterwards regard for the demands of public display caused the abandonment of the whole idea of the reservation of the intermediate galleries for students' use. Some of Waterhouse's arrangements for access to basement workshops were thus upset, and he seems to have been irritated. (fn. 112) Other alterations, perhaps associated with restiveness by departmental keepers against Owen's superintendence, were agreed to in August 1876, bringing the openings and partitions in the rear galleries nearly to their present state. (fn. 113)
The idea of a large ground-floor Refreshment Room had been abandoned in 1871 and an intended Dining Room at the rear of the first floor was now, in 1876, also given up, the apartment being redesignated the Trustees' Board Room, which it still is. (fn. 114) The austerely sparse accommodation for refreshment, contrasting with that in the South Kensington Museum, was criticized in 1883. (fn. 115)
In the same month of August 1876 an ominous note was struck in Waterhouse's correspondence with the Office of Works, when he refused to certify a payment to the contractors. They were involved in difficulties over the unreliable supply of terra-cotta, (fn. 116) and had had to send a representative to live at the makers' works in Staffordshire. (fn. 117) The construction of the museum was in fact to have a very unhappy history. One basic reason was Waterhouse's decision to face the museum entirely with a material not normally employed so extensively. This had limited the possible choice of suppliers, and when the invitation to tender had been in contemplation in November 1871 Waterhouse had wanted a separate competition and contract for the terra-cotta. The Office of Works preferred to maintain the contractors' over-all responsibility. (fn. 118)
In September 1872 the lowest tender of seventeen had been put in by George Baker and Son, who had possibly been invited to compete on Waterhouse's direct recommendation. (fn. 119) As has been seen, they had finally been employed on the basis of a revised tender (at £352,000). The high level of the tendered prices was attributed largely to the lack of competition among the subcontracting terra-cotta makers. (fn. 120) The firm chosen was Gibbs and Canning of Tamworth. Later, the Office of Works' consultant surveyor, Hunt, said that Waterhouse had virtually forced them upon Baker and Son: this he denied, but it is at least clear that he was an active intermediary in the arrangement. (fn. 121) The terra-cotta makers were given the privilege of monthly payment by the Office of Works on the certificate of the contractors.
By the beginning of 1876 when the contractors should have completed their work the building was only half finished. At that stage Hunt and Waterhouse agreed in blaming the terra-cotta deliveries. (fn. 122) The main roofs were covered-in early in 1878. (fn. 123) Then in the summer of 1879, when the museum was nearly finished, the contractors failed, although their creditors notified the Office of Works that they would complete the contract. (fn. 124) In October 1881 Hunt was commenting on 'the total and absolute ruin of the contractors, two of whom have recently died'. (fn. 125) The cause of their failure was by then being hotly disputed. The official explanation was rising costs, (fn. 126) which, it seems, may have procured for Baker and Son some concession of increased payment soon after the signing of their contract. (fn. 127) Waterhouse now attributed Baker and Son's failure to their lack of 'generalship', and more specifically to delay in the supply of iron, not terra-cotta. (fn. 128) The very high price of iron in 1872 had contributed to the high cost of tenders. (fn. 129) In the end, all the iron was reported to have come from Belgium—'a fact well worth pondering over by British workmen', as The Buildersaid. (fn. 130) The trustees of Baker and Son's estate continued to blame the terra-cotta supply, but now chiefly laid blame on the long history of alterations in the design. (fn. 131) It is evident that what was meant was not so much the changes of plan and composition already mentioned, as manifold changes in the architectural detailing.
One cause of this lay in Waterhouse's attempt to give a two-colour effect to the mainly buff façade. Difficulty in obtaining a supply of sound blue-grey terra-cotta led him to reduce the quantity of this variety used externally, but, in order to achieve the intended vivacity of effect, to increase the modelling of the surface in compensation. (fn. 132) (Another revision was the reduction in the size of the individual blocks to improve firing, although Waterhouse thought this facilitated handling. (fn. 133) )
The outstanding feature of the detailing was that it was illustrative, portraying the subjectmatter, existing and extinct, of the museum (Plates 62c, 62d, 63a, 63b; figs. 34, 35). Examples were suggested to Waterhouse by Owen, (fn. 134) whom Waterhouse asked to inspect the first plaster models before manufacture in terra-cotta. (fn. 135) The plaster models were made by Monsieur Dujardin of the firm of architectural modellers, Farmer and Brindley, (fn. 136) from careful pencil drawings by Waterhouse himself. (fn. 137) The decoration of the east and west wings of the museum was with extinct and living species respectively, corresponding to the distribution of the geological and zoological collections. Sorting the terra-cotta into the right category was to be an item in a large claim for extra payment by Baker and Son's trustees. (fn. 138)
Waterhouse had insisted throughout that his alterations would in sum reduce the building costs. (fn. 139) Taking additions and subtractions together, however, the alterations were valued at upward of a quarter of a million pounds, (fn. 125) and the question who should pay for the surveyor's costing of this 'gigantic puzzle' became itself an issue between Waterhouse and the Office of Works. (fn. 139) The Office's consultant surveyor, Hunt, was very condemnatory of Waterhouse. In June 1881 Baker and Son's trustees, arguing that the alterations amounted to a breach of contract, claimed some £80,000 beyond the agreed price, and refused an offer of £10,000. (fn. 140) Hunt, with the support of the Office's solicitor, reported in October that an appeal to arbitration on behalf of the contractors might be successful. (fn. 141) An offer of £25,000 was made and accepted in July 1882. (fn. 142) Hunt attributed some of Waterhouse's difficulties to the demands of 'the professors' but told him that the added expense caused by his alterations was 'a scandal and a shame'. (fn. 143) To the Office of Works Hunt suggested that they should proceed against Waterhouse for 'a serious dereliction of duty' and 'negligence or indifference to his moral and as I humbly think, his legal obligation to the Board'. He raised the question whether the Board should in future use only architects over whom they could exercise more control. (fn. 144)
The final cost of the building itself was evidently some £412,000 compared with the original limit of £330,000. To this was added Waterhouse's commission of 5 per cent on that smaller sum, the additional cost of the towers, some but not all of the finishings and some but not all of the costing-surveyor's charges: his remuneration totalled £19,730. (fn. 145)
There was also the expense of the furniture and cases. By reason of the nature of the collection they required (and still require) exceptional care and expense. In December 1877 the Treasury had accepted an estimate of no less than £177,045 for these, and Waterhouse had been directed to design the fittings. (fn. 146) Throughout the following year he produced designs for wall-cases and other furnishings. (fn. 147) Financial difficulties, however, were overtaking Disraeli's Government. The country's imperial status had helped the growth of the collections, but economies at home were now required to sustain overseas involvements. (fn. 148) (fn. 5) Late in 1879 the Treasury pronounced the expenditure of 'the enormous sum' of £137,570 outstanding from the earlier estimate to be 'quite out of the question', (fn. 150) and the public opening of the museum was delayed by lack of funds for fittings. (fn. 151) In the end, the benches and chairs were of Waterhouse's designing (many are still in use) but some at least of the cases were made to the design of (Sir) John Taylor, the Office of Works' surveyor, who later claimed the credit for them although they were compared unfavourably with Waterhouse's furniture. (fn. 152) And the final cost was still nearly £137,000. (fn. 153)
With this exception Waterhouse's hand was seen throughout. The plaster ceilings were painted, less elaborately than first intended, by Best and Lea of Manchester. (fn. 154) The stained-glass windows of Waterhouse's designing were made by F. T. Odell of Finsbury. (fn. 155) Burke and Company of Newman Street made the mosaic pavements, which were confined to the central compartments from regard for the comfort of the curators, despite a stately plea by Cole for the general use of tiles or mosaic. (fn. 156) The ornamental ironwork was made by Hart, Son and Peard of Wych Street. (fn. 157) The slating of the roofs, where Waterhouse showed his niceness of touch, was by T. Stirling. (fn. 157)
The building was handed over to the British Museum by the Office of Works in June 1880 and opened to the public in three of its four departments in April 1881: the last (zoological) gallery was opened in 1886 (Plates 63c, 64–65, 66a, b, 66c; fig. 33). (fn. 158) Owen at last had his great museum, oriented mainly towards public display. (Waterhouse had told him in 1878 that the floor-space devoted to exhibits amounted to 4¾ acres, to workshops rather more than ½ acre and to storage space 1½ acres. (fn. 15) ) He also had his 'British Natural History Museum' although the 'Index Museum' in the Central Hall was less elaborate than he wished: its development largely awaited his successor, Sir William Flower. (fn. 159) Gladstone had Owen given his K.C.B. in 1883. He also sent Owen a copy of his forthcoming article directed against T. H. Huxley, the 'Proem to Genesis', to which Owen replied with E. P. Ramsay's paper on the egg of the porcupine ant-eater. (fn. 160)
In his account of the museum to the Biology Section of the British Association in 1881 Owen reaffirmed his preference for top-lit galleries of modest height: the transverse galleries represented a 'developmental advance' over the Central Hall and side-lit galleries, which expressed the 'character of the primitive and now extinct museum'. (fn. 19)
The reception of Waterhouse's building was on the whole favourable. (fn. 161) Its transfusion of a period style into something unmistakeably of its own day was liked, and the Companionto the British Almanacwent so far as to call it 'forwardlooking' contrasted with the 'backward-looking' Law Courts. (fn. 162) The use of terra-cotta was praised for commonsense reasons, but the refinement of its handling was also noted. In a particularly appreciative article in 1881 E. Ingress Bell stressed the museum's picturesque or painterly qualities—in fact it was 'a Victorian building, and no other'. (fn. 163) Ten years before, The Timeshad feared that it might prove to be 'a violent and dangerous contrast' to the Huxley Building. (fn. 164) But this objection seems not to have been revived.
Inside, the lighting of the exhibits had been carefully studied. But Cole was implacable, thinking the building greatly inferior to his South Kensington Museum in such practicalities: 'design begotten in sin has produced a crippled, dark, foolish building, most inappropriate, illlighted, badly ventilated'. (fn. 165) Owen on the contrary spoke of the 'flood of light' in the Central Hall, (fn. 19) and in places experience showed that Waterhouse's lighting was actually too abundant. (fn. 166) Nowadays only limited use is made of Waterhouse's arrangements for natural lighting. Originally, the central section alone was artificially lit, by gas. (fn. 115)
Soon, too, exhibition space was being converted to study and storage purposes and this shift from Owen's approach made Waterhouse's plan seem inconvenient. The radical separation of zoological and palaeontological material was criticized and soon seemed out of date. (fn. 167)
Waterhouse's reputation suffered nothing from the builders' difficulties. Even in the official mind Hunt's strictures had no permanent effect, and eight or nine years later the Office of Works gave Waterhouse an honoured place in the South Kensington Museum competition.
At the Natural History Museum Waterhouse was asked in June 1881 to make plans for a separate building to house objects preserved in spirit. He estimated that his design would cost £7,350 exclusive of fittings, and fortunately an acceptable tender was offered (by George Shaw) at £7,200. The detached building at the rear of the museum (Plate 74b) was finished by March 1883. (fn. 168)
This does not survive, but another ancillary building, the residential Lodge, designed by Waterhouse in 1883 to accommodate an engineer and messenger in semi-detached houses, still stands near Queen's Gate (fig. 35). Mowlem and Company's tender was accepted at £2,300. The Lodge was composed to look well if the ground level was lowered some 5½ feet when the museum should be enlarged and the existing garden level extended northward. (fn. 169)
By 1884 the total expenditure on the museum buildings and fittings was some £602,000. (fn. 153)
When extension became a live topic c. 1911 it was involved in an attempt, originating mainly outside the museum, to secure physical links between it and the two other museums being planned to the northward, the Science Museum and the Geological Museum. In 1911 the British Museum agreed that the latter should be built in the Natural History Museum's grounds, and as part, physically, of an extension to that museum. (fn. 170) A design to realize this by a continuation of the front range in Waterhouse's style, with a duplication of his angle towers at each end, was prepared by Sir Henry Tanner of the Office of Works in 1911–13. (fn. 6) By 1914, however, Tanner's successor (Sir) Richard Allison, had prepared plans in the classical style. (fn. 171) But the war of 1914–18 prevented anything being done (although the Science Museum was begun in 1914). In c. 1920–3 a new 'spirit museum' was built to the design of J. H. Markham of the Office of Works, extending west from the north-west corner of the museum. (fn. 172) Happily, the advance of science had not quenched an enthusiasm for whales, and in 1929–32 the same architect had the pleasing task of designing a Whale Hall on the north side of the museum, to house the model and skeleton of Balaenoptera musculus. (fn. 173) Its location accorded with the recommendation of the Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries in 1927–8 that any extension should be northward, over an area of 'ugliness and squalor'. (fn. 174) At that time the idea of a junction between the three museums was revived by the authorities of the newly building Geological Museum but the Natural History Museum did not approve of it and no connexion was then made although the Geological Museum was placed adjacent to the museum's geological wing (see page 258). Between 1935 and 1938 an entomological block was built on the west side, and between 1949 and 1952 it was extended by W. Kendall of the Ministry of Works to meet the new spirit museum (which was also extended westward in the same period). (fn. 175)
In 1955–8 the first stage of a major northern extension of the museum was built to Kendall's design on the site of the old spirit museum. This was in conjunction with the central section of the Science Museum, to which it gave public access. A General Library and a Lecture Theatre were included, so fulfilling Owen's scheme. (fn. 176)
In 1973 the second stage of this northern extension was completed and an L-shaped east wing designed by G. A. H. Pearce of the Department of the Environment was under construction, to house the palaeontological department and be linked to the Geological Museum (plan d between pages 54–5).
Inside the museum the botanical gallery, damaged during the 1939–45 war, has been reconstructed, in 1962, over the geological gallery. (fn. 177) Other galleries (including British birds, insects, African mammals and meteorites) have been thoroughly masked to give more effective displays. In the side-lit galleries along the front only the west wing on the ground floor preserved in 1974 the relationship between the pier-cornices and display-cases intended by Waterhouse.