Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.
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CHAPTER XV - Imperial Institute
When a contributor to The British Architectwas reviewing the six competition designs for this building in 1887, he commented on their dissimilarity. 'Each architect seems to have had to fancy for himself the sort of thing an Imperial Institute should be. As the world has not yet seen an "Imperial Institute" and no one appears yet to know precisely what it is for, it seems very much like asking six Palaeontologists to furnish plans and elevations for a dodo, without supplying them with bones to evolve it from.' (fn. 5) The attractiveness of Collcutt's solution was amply acknowledged both then and subsequently, but the building was to fall victim to the failure of the Institute to find a permanent role for itself, while there were those who felt even in the design a lack of confident and affirmative force. (For this chapter see Plates 1, 67a, 68–70, 76b, 118a; plans c, d between pages 54–5 and fig. 37.)
In origin the idea of the Institute was chiefly that of a museum or exhibition. During the late 1870's the notion of an Empire museum had gained some support, and engaged the interest of the Prince of Wales. A reorganized Indian Museum (of art objects) was opened at South Kensington in 1880, and when in 1883–6 a series of exhibitions was held in the Horticultural Society's garden the last was devoted to the produce of India and the Colonies: under a Royal Commission headed by the Prince it achieved great success. The Prince had hoped from the beginning that it might become permanent, and in the summer of 1886 initiated the process that led to the Imperial Institute by enlisting the colonial representatives in a scheme to perpetuate the exhibition for the celebration of the Queen's approaching Jubilee. The Queen approved heartily. (fn. 6) The Prince proposed to invite the Lord Mayor of London to start a fundraising campaign, and wanted to tell him that the Queen supported the idea. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, with the approval of the Queen's private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, resisted the Queen's patronage of the scheme at a stage when it might 'mean anything from a lectureroom to a teagarden'. (fn. 7) The Prince was anxious that his direction of the enterprise should not suffer interference, but Lord Salisbury's negative attitude angered him, (fn. 8) and he commented: 'It is a curious fact that whenever there is anything of importance wh. I initiate the Gov. always tries to throw cold water on it.' (fn. 9) He omitted, however, any reference to the Queen's approval in the letter that he wrote to the Lord Mayor in September. The institution 'should represent the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce of the Queen's Colonial and Indian Empire'. It would be 'at once a Museum, an Exhibition, and the proper locality for the discussion of Colonial and Indian subjects'. The progress made during the Queen's reign would be set forth, while it would also 'record year by year the development of the Empire in the arts of civilization'. By its influence emigration would be stimulated, trade expanded, and the bonds of Empire drawn closer. (fn. 10)
The Lord Mayor undertook to open a subscription fund; the Prince appointed an organizing committee in November; two simultaneous meetings at St. James's Palace and the Mansion House in January 1887 launched the fund, and on this basis the Queen's support was published a few days later. (fn. 11)
The newspapers were favourable, but cautious. There seems to have been considerable nervousness in responsible circles that the colonies might be offended by overmuch initiative on the part of the United Kingdom. The question of site was also a large difficulty. The executive officer of the 1886 exhibition, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Owen, was unpopular in many quarters and as director of the South Kensington Museum increased the general distrust of any connexion with the 'South Kensington' establishment. The Timescalled on the Prince to 'cut himself adrift from petty exhibitional traditions' because 'South Kensington . . . lacks the saving grace of public confidence'. (fn. 12)
A shift of emphasis that quickly showed itself in thought about the institution increased the objection to South Kensington. The most serious demand for such a foundation seemed to come from those who associated it closely with aid to home commerce and industry. Seen as a place for British businessmen to obtain trading intelligence a more central location than Kensington was desirable. Some thought United Kingdom interests would best be served by a building in the City. As early as 1851 there had been a demand from mercantile firms in the City for an international commercial 'museum', (fn. 13) and there was again much talk of establishing such an institution under the London Chamber of Commerce. T. H. Huxley, whose advocacy of the Institute was evidently valued by its sponsors, was especially preoccupied with the contribution it might make to the competitive power of industrial Britain. It should be 'a house of call' for all concerned in industry or the 'man of business who wants to know anything about the prospects of trade with say, BorrioboolaGha'. (fn. 14) His insistence early in 1887 that a South Kensington location would kill the prospects of an Institute so conceived greatly worried its supporters. (fn. 15) The periodical Naturethought the Institute might 'bring British industry under the dominion of the scientific spirit'. (fn. 16) Others, who saw it primarily as a political demonstration, wanted a site on the Embankment or in Whitehall.
Two factors held the Institute to South Kensington. One was that the Queen refused to allow the chief monument of her Jubilee to be built in the City. South Kensington, on the other hand, pleased her as realizing some of the Prince Consort's ideas. (fn. 17) The other factor was that a more central site would cost at least £250,000. (fn. 18) The aim of the meetings in January was to raise £500,000, (fn. 19) but the Prince of Wales's secretary had doubted whether, except as a tribute to the Queen, 'there are 500 People in England who would give a farthing towards the Institution for itself'. (fn. 20) In the end some £426,100 was raised, by September 1894. (fn. 21) As this was to pay for a building and its maintenance the prospect of obtaining a virtually free site from the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners was a compelling reason in favour of South Kensington. Ponsonby (himself a Commissioner) had sounded their secretary, Sir Lyon Playfair, in October 1886. The Commissioners' financial health was not robust and at first it seemed that providing a site would necessitate the Commissioners' dissolution as a body and their transformation into 'Jubilee Commissioners'. (fn. 22) However, an adjustment of their liabilities enabled the Commissioners to offer in June 1887 a site (initially of some 5¾ acres, subsequently increased to some 6¾ acres) which they valued at £250,000 on a 999-year lease, for £5 per annum. It extended across the centre of the old garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (thus decisively preventing the Commissioners' estate developing any major north—South scenic axis, plan c between pages 54–5). The Institute authorities were to make a road on its southward side. Called Imperial Institute Road, it was laid out by Mowlem and Company in 1888–92 at a contract price of £5,825. (fn. 23)
The personnel of the organizing committee appointed by the Prince in November 1886 showed that 'South Kensington' was nevertheless not to control the Institute. The Commissioners were well represented, but not the Science and Art Department or its museums and schools. The chairman—very active and assiduous—was the past and future Lord Chancellor, Lord Herschell. (fn. 24) The identity of the organizing secretary demonstrated how serious and workmanlike were ambitions for the Institute. He was the distinguished chemist, Sir Frederick Abel, who was released by the War Office for the purpose. (fn. 25) He worked devotedly for the Institute, although it was perhaps infelicitous that the executive officer of an imperial foundation should be the inventor of cordite and the Government's chief adviser on high explosives. (fn. 1)
The committee made a report in December. Generally it adhered to the aims stated in September—primarily to illustrate, in a building worthy of the Jubilee, 'the great commercial and industrial resources of the colonies and India'. But it reflected the weight of interests supporting the Institute by making it representative also and in equal measure of the products and industry of the United Kingdom. (fn. 27) Engaging the interest of the provincial cities was now a concern of the Prince's (fn. 28) and the report expressed the contemporary anxiety about technical education by connecting the Institute with the 1851 Commissioners' scheme for local scholarships in technology. When presenting the report at the St. James's Palace meeting the Prince acknowledged that many wanted the Institute to serve technical education even more directly. (fn. 29) Greater emphasis now also appeared on scientific research into the properties of the Empire's products—the part of its work that in fact was to prove the most important for the first forty years or so. The stated aims were very multifarious—too much so, the Queen thought. (fn. 30) The first sections to be set up were departments for emigration and commercial intelligence, both initiated before building had made substantial progress.
In January 1887, however, a building committee was formed. One member was the President of the Royal Academy, Leighton. Another was Alfred Waterhouse, and it was he, an experienced assessor of competition designs, who chiefly framed that for the Institute's building. Architects were invited to submit their names and of the 66 who did so six were chosen in February to compete. They were R. Rowand Anderson, A. W. Blomfield, T. E. Collcutt, T. N. Deane and Son (Deane being the oldest at 59), T. G. Jackson and Messrs. Aston Webb and E. Ingress Bell (the youngest at 38 and 46). Lord Herschell was pleased that among the six 'each part of the United Kingdom was represented without the choice having been influenced by that consideration'. Each was to receive £200 for a design to be submitted within three months. The selection was to be by Lord Herschell, Lord Carnarvon, Abel, Leighton and Waterhouse, plus an outside assessor if the competitors so desired—a provision that seemingly remained inoperative. (fn. 31) In March all six competitors, and Leighton, dined with Waterhouse to discuss (in Sir T. G. Jackson's recollection) 'the terms of the competition'. (fn. 32)
The limit of cost was £250,000, for which was to be provided a 'fine reception hall', a library, three reading rooms with 'intelligence offices', conference rooms, committee rooms, emigration offices, refreshment rooms, 'sample rooms, connected with one or more laboratories', and part at least of a sequence of exhibition galleries. It was recommended that large wall spaces should be left for mural pictures. Any decorative marble or wood should be from a 'British possession'. The directive was hardly, as The British Architect's correspondent suspected, 'cruelly vague', but a committee member, Sir Henry James (later Lord James and a powerful influence in the Institute) had a clause added that 'the Committee have not yet finally determined upon all the different objects to which the Institute may be devoted' nor on the extent of space each might need, and the competitors' submissions differed in approach accordingly. (fn. 33)
Apparently by Waterhouse's wish, the submissions were to include a perspective silhouette. (fn. 34) The competitors were told that 'a design in brick and stone would probably be preferred', although the building committee did not accept the proposal to prohibit terra-cotta put forward by its trade-union member, Henry Broadhurst, a leader of the Operative Stonemasons' Society. (fn. 35)
Some of the designs for stone and brick seemed, nevertheless, to ask for realisation rather in terracotta, and among these improvident schemes was that of Collcutt, who in June was rewarded for his nonchalance with success (Plate 68a). (fn. 36) The committee emphatically made it known that his design would require modification, but their choice was approved by the press. Deane's oldfashioned and extravagant design from Dublin was admired but did not 'represent British progress' and was 'rather too high-flown even for an Imperial Institute': it looked more like 'a Palace of Central Legislation'. Webb and Bell's design also pleased: it gave great prominence to the 'Jubilee' aspect with a free-standing tower rather like Collcutt's, and paid stylistic homage to Waterhouse's own Natural History Museum. Of the others Jackson's looked like a college (plus a huge Flemish tower) and Andersen's rather like a hospital. None was standard Gothic. (fn. 37)
The critics liked Collcutt's plan—'a simple and well-digested scheme, easily read and conveniently contrived'—and the opportunities for 'vistas' that it afforded. The good massing and silhouette were noted, as was the effective alternation of solids and voids, and the unity given by the unbroken roof and the binding horizontal strips and courses. The relative poverty of design in the upper part of the tower was corrected in execution, and generally the rich yet delicate detail gave pleasure. It was noticed in the finished building, however, that this detailing was not 'of the most truly masonic character', but was rather 'a piece of cabinetmaking on a colossal scale' (Plate 68b, 68c). Whether the many subdivisions detracted from the total effect was disputed. The British Architect thought that the lack of a piano nobilerobbed the design of monumentality. The Companionto the British Almanacthought that the finished building 'is essentially Victorian, and can only be described as charming in every respect', and that its smallness of architectural scale was not incompatible with a grand effect. (fn. 38) When it was in progress in 1889 The Builderpronounced it the most important building under construction in England, and potentially next in importance to the Houses of Parliament. Its final judgement was restrained. 'That a building is entirely refined in detail and that there is absolutely nothing of bad or tawdry taste in it, is indeed much to say, and this praise the building fully merits; but we cannot call it a great or striking piece of architecture.' The Building Newsthought it would not appeal to popular taste; but indeed the competition designs aroused little interest. (fn. 39) Equally, no comment on the finished building seems to have noticed Collcutt's idiosyncratic use of brick as if it were (in Mr. Goodhart-Rendel's words) 'more precious than the Portland stone'. (fn. 40)
Collcutt's façade and front range was executed very nearly as he designed it (Plate 69a). This was despite the comparative haste with which it was finally settled. The foundation stone (of granite from the Cape, on a pedestal of Indian bricks) was laid by the Queen a fortnight after the Jubilee and less than a month after Collcutt's success. (fn. 41) The foundations were begun in October, by which time the design had been finally settled to the Prince's approval. (fn. 42)
The Institute was not succeeding in arousing much general enthusiasm, and in December the Prince deplored the 'misunderstanding and misrepresentation' that had been encountered. (fn. 43) (fn. 2) The lack of support was noted by the Prince's brotherin-law, Prince Christian, who as an 1851 Commissioner was anxious that their estate should not be encumbered with a white elephant. The Commissioners' secretary, Playfair, seems to have been more amenable to the Prince of Wales's persuasion, and, now thinking that the interests of the Commissioners and the Institute were, to a large extent, identical', would appear to have made over to the Institute the Commissioners' substantial profit from the 1886 exhibition, without Prince Christian, for one, knowing much about this 'delicate matter'. (fn. 44) (The £140 surplus that had long been in the hands of the 1851 Exhibition Memorial Committee went the same way. (fn. 45) ) The Commissioners insisted that £140,000 from the Institute's resources should be appropriated to an endowment fund. The Commissioners themselves, however, were none too popular, and Playfair's suggestion that the money should be reinvested with them on the security of their ground rents was rejected because it would have seemed to the public (though wrongly) that the Institute's funds were being used to relieve the Commissioners of their own mortgage debt. (fn. 46)
By May 1888 the foundations were completed, (fn. 47) and in that month the Institute's charter was promulgated. Huxley, annoyed by the adherence to South Kensington, had pronounced the Institute 'already a failure' before it was begun, doomed 'to become eventually a ghost like the Albert Hall or revive as a tea garden'. (fn. 48) But under Abel its purpose at least was almost grimly practical: to retain, as Abel saw it, a competitive place for the Empire against the industrial power of Continental and American rivalry. (fn. 49) The purposes stated in the charter were essentially material. They were primarily the formation and exhibition of collections of home and Empire produce, to illustrate the Empire's economic growth compared with foreign countries; the collection and dissemination of commercial and other intelligence; the promotion of such collections and information centres elsewhere; the holding of special exhibitions; the advancement of technical, commercial and industrial education; the furtherance of systematic colonization; and the fostering of conferences and other means of friendly intercourse between parts of the Empire. (fn. 50) (fn. 3)
The prospective cost of the new road and the actual cost of the foundations were more, while the subscriptions were probably rather less, than had been hoped. The endowment fund required by the Commissioners was a substantial charge, and late in 1887 or early in 1888 Collcutt had revised his scheme to allow only £150,000 to be spent initially. The tender of £142,800 for the main carcase, less the towers, from John Mowlem and Company was approved; theirs was not quite the lowest but Collcutt and Waterhouse recommended them for what was 'essentially a mason's building', and the latter particularly praised their skill in masonry work. (fn. 54) Collcutt's contract drawings are dated May and July 1888. (fn. 55) In the latter month the building committee acted on Waterhouse's advice that it would be cheaper in the long run to include the towers in the contract and this was done when it was concluded at £161,597 in August. (fn. 56)
The walls were generally up to first-floor level by May 1889 (when the Architectural Association on a visit noted the sharp lines of the machineworked mouldings). (fn. 57) In 1891 domed entrances to the Commissioners' Eastern and Western Galleries were built as outliers of Collcutt's façade, and to his design (Plate 69a). (fn. 58) In 1891–2 plain 'intermediate' and 'north' cross-galleries (linking the Eastern and Western Galleries) were built by Collcutt behind the main range: the north gallery, largely paid for by the Government, was at first intended to house the Tate collection of British paintings on its first floor, which in fact was used for the Science and Art Department's Indian Museum (fig. 37). (fn. 59) By the summer of 1892 the central tower, built on internal scaffolding with walls nine feet thick at base, was approaching its full height of 287 feet, and in June the still-unfinished building was informally opened. (fn. 60) The official opening by the Queen followed a year later on 10 May 1893—'a really momentous day, like a small Jubilee', as she called it. The Queen thought the building 'looked very grand and imposing, with its high tower. . . .' (fn. 61)
The stone used outside was Portland (Whitbed) and inside mostly Hopton Wood. (fn. 57) The frieze over the entrance was carved by H. Pegram, whose work won praise. The balustrade and rail of the east staircase were of Belgian marble: the grand central staircase when it followed later in the year was of Numidian, Serancolin and Lumachelle marbles. Marble mosaic pavements were executed by Messrs. Burke, and other mosaic work by Messrs. De Grelle, Houdret and Company, and Rust and Company. English oak panelling carved at Dunmow, Essex, was the work of 'village industry', and it was said 'the artizans engaged upon it share the profits'. (Sir) George Frampton carved some chimneypieces. Ornamental ironwork was provided by Messrs. Potter and Sons and Richardson, Ellson and Company; and stained glass by Clement Heaton and Company. Panels on the east staircase were painted by C. Fairfax Murray and the Indian Room decorated by J. D. Grace (Plate 70a, c). (fn. 62) The peal of ten bells (which were still housed in the tower in 1974) were made by Messrs. John Taylor of Loughborough. (fn. 63)
The opening ceremony took place in a temporary hall, as the erection of the great hall, like that of the conference room and library, had been postponed. (fn. 64) A conference room-cum-library, economically conflated into one, was built at the east end in 1894–5, (fn. 65) but the great hall never. The need for economy had meant that in 1892 Collcutt was refused funds for some sculptural carving on the façade that he wanted, and the use of Empire stone restricted because of its cost. (fn. 66)
By September 1891 the building committee had been reconstituted and included the engineer Wolfe-Barry, the retired contractor Charles Lucas, and the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, J. Macvicar Anderson. Oversight of aesthetic questions remained with Leighton and Waterhouse, to whom Collcutt was told to refer all designs for sculpture and stonecarving. (fn. 67)
The committee had immediately found itself faced with a chronic trouble that probably contributed to the final high cost of the building. In 1889–90, no doubt anxious to conciliate workingclass opinion and influenced by Broadhurst, the old building committee had refused to allow any sub-letting of stonework or plastering that 'involved the fault of sweating'. (According to Broadhurst, when Mowlem's claimed that it was necessary to sub-let some masonry to a Derbyshire firm because 'London masons could not work that class of stone' he offered to work it himself.) The whole question caused some friction with Mowlem's. (fn. 68) Then in 1890–1 strikes had delayed work, (fn. 69) particularly a widespread carpenters' strike begun in May 1891. Macvicar Anderson became involved as arbitrator in October and the strike, or lock-out as the men called it, ended in November. (A document drawn up by the strikers stating that the entrance-dome to the Eastern Gallery had been built by 'blacklegs' was found in the dome when it was demolished in 1956.) (fn. 70) Early in the next year bricklayers' strikes were in prospect, and probably affected work here. (fn. 71) When the main building work was nearing completion early in 1894 the committee had to investigate substantial excesses over the contract price, and received a complaint from Mowlem's, which Lord Herschell rejected, that their labourcosts had been increased by the committee's readiness to receive deputations from workmen. (fn. 72)
The final cost of the building is said to have been £354,000. (fn. 73) This presumably included an appreciable excess on the contracts. There was also perhaps a disproportionate expenditure on decorative features such as the vestibule and grand staircase in the later stages. Some thought that too much had been spent on the building. This was possibly so, as it was necessary to borrow heavily in order to meet the deficit that was apparent after £140,000 was appropriated for the endowment fund. (fn. 74) Nor was the resulting £4,000 annual income available for general maintenance expenses because in 1892–3 it became known that the assessment for rates by the two parishes in which the Institute stood would be so much more than anticipated (£15,877 instead of £4,168) that rates, taxes and insurance would absorb that revenue. (fn. 75) (fn. 4)
Back in 1886 The Timeshad been anxious that the Institute should 'represent the Empire in all its grandeur, and not merely amuse the holiday sightseer'. (fn. 27) Abel's influence was wholly towards serious work, but faced with the necessity to increase income it was decided to attract subscribing Fellows by the provision of more 'club' amenities: one significant addition in 1893 was a billiard-room. (fn. 78) Public entertainments were also sponsored largely. (fn. 79) But the policy of creating 'attractions' was not very successful in relation to its great expense and by 1898, although the 1851 Commissioners were paying £2,000 per annum to the Research Department, the financial position was desperate. (fn. 80) Partly through the intercession of Haldane, enlisted by the Prince, (fn. 81) a solution of a kind was found in 1899. The reconstituted University of London was about to leave Burlington Gardens, and it was arranged for it to take over about half of the building. The whole was surrendered by the Institute to the Government through the assignment of its leases to the Office of Works, which made a sub-lease of part back to the Institute in 1901. (fn. 82) In that year another surrender of independence was made. In December it was announced that the financial position was then sound, but that it was becoming evident that the work of the Institute, in developing the commercial and industrial resources of the Empire, duplicated that of the Board of Trade. This can hardly have been a sudden revelation, but the Governing Body accepted that the Institute should be transferred wholly to the Government. (The trade-union representative approved: 'The Government manage their great Institutions so well that they are popular throughout this country.' (fn. 83) ) An Act in 1902 placed the Institute under the Board of Trade. (fn. 84) In 1907 management was transferred to the Colonial Office, and in 1925 to the Department of Overseas Trade (under the Board of Trade). (fn. 85)
In at least the early years of its administration under the central Government the work of research into the physical resources of the Empire was valuable, and was still given qualified approval by a committee of enquiry in 1923 which thought the Institute should continue to function 'as a Clearing House of Intelligence and Information, equipped with laboratories to . . . carry on only the work of preliminary analysis and investigation of raw materials'. The exhibition galleries, 'desolate and deserted', should be closed, and a travelling exhibition formed. The South African High Commissioner even thought that the Institute was useless and should be closed down. (fn. 86) The galleries were, however, retained. After the 1939–45 war the scientific, technical and economic investigations were progressively abandoned for more purely educational work. In 1949, after the cessation of the Department of Overseas Trade, the Institute was transferred to the Ministry of Education. A departmental committee of enquiry reported in 1952, and was baffled to explain exactly what right some of the occupants of the building had to be there. (fn. 87) Tenure partly by 'outsiders' for half a century had given the interior a rather depressing and purposeless atmosphere: the best a friendly architectural critic could find to say of the building's function was that it was 'full of a lot of people and things that would otherwise have to be somewhere else'. (fn. 88) The former gardens at the back had become badly cluttered—by a generating station, for example, put up by the Office of Works in the north-west quadrangle in 1905–6 (Plate 118a). (fn. 89) Inside the building, however, extensive changes had not been made; indeed, the committee thought the lift and some fitments would be welcomed by a 'museum of antiquities'. It recommended that 'the emphasis should shift from economic to social and cultural interests', and the name be changed to reflect the transition from Empire to Commonwealth. (fn. 90)
Then in 1953 the Government announced its scheme for the expansion of Imperial College. The architects' plan was made generally public early in 1956, and a vigorous agitation was raised when it was seen that it involved the demolition of the Institute building. The Royal Fine Arts Commission had learnt of this in 1954 with regret, but felt itself hampered in formulating an alternative by what it considered the unnecessary 'secrecy' of the preparations. This lack of open discussion was criticized, as was the apparent overbuilding of the site. (fn. 91) The public's objection to the Institute's demolition was also strong—remarkably so for a building of a style and period not then much in fashion. In June the Government announced that the tower alone would be kept and a revised scheme to permit this was published in the following month. (fn. 92) The Royal Fine Arts Commission remained unconvinced that the whole might not have been preserved. (fn. 91) Demolition of the rear galleries began in 1957: the east wing of the main range had been replaced by a College building by 1962, and by 1965 the west wing had been demolished. The retention of the tower (Plate 76b; plans c, d between pages 54–5) has been criticized as an unsatisfactory compromise.
Meanwhile the Institute, renamed the Commonwealth Institute in 1958, (fn. 93) had turned to a substantially new role and in 1962 took up its wholly educational and interpretative work in a new building at Holland Park.