Burlington Arcade

Pages 430-434

Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1963.

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Burlington Arcade: Stone Conduit Close

The arcade was constructed within the westernmost margin of the Burlington House site. It was designed by Samuel Ware and built for Lord George Cavendish in the years 1818–19. Lord George acquired the Burlington House site from his nephew, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, in August 1815 but by the early spring of that year he already had sufficient lien on the property to be preparing alterations to Burlington House, and the first estimate of the cost of an arcade of shops (though differing somewhat from the arrangement executed) was being made in May 1815. This was in a report made by Ware to John Heaton, the Devonshires' London agent. The project may thus not have originated wholly with Lord George but was perhaps associated with earlier schemes submitted to Heaton by Ware and others for a more extensive redevelopment of the whole Burlington House site by the Devonshire family. It was less ambitious than any of these, but an admirable piece of urban speculation. It did no violence to the Burlingtonian layout, serving rather to give the house and garden greater privacy; it added to the sauntering delights of the West End; and it brought a handsome return on Lord George's capital outlay (fig. 76).

It was built very soon after the Royal Opera Arcade of Nash and Repton, which was the earlier to be planned. (fn. 1) That arcade, however, had shops only on one side and the Burlington Arcade appears to be the exemplar in England of the more usual double-sided arcade.

Ware's report of May 1815 described the proposed development as 'a Piazza for all Hardware, Wearing Apparel and Articles not Offensive in appearance nor smell'. The project at this stage was for a double-sided arcade divided into four sections by three spaces called 'inter-shops' where the promenade would be wider and shops would be replaced (as at the entrances also) by 'stands' or 'stalls' which were to be 'after the principle of those in Exeter Change'. There were to be 38 shops and 20 stalls. (fn. 2)

More than two years passed, during which the attention of Lord George and his architect was doubtless concentrated on their alterations to Burlington House. In July 1817 Ware produced another prospectus for the arcade, which still retained its designation as a 'piazza'. The main feature in which the 1815 scheme differed from that which was shortly to be effected still survived in the 'three Saloons or Intervals' where the shops would be 'open' and only a single storey high. Easy perambulation would have been interrupted by steps in the middle saloon designed to adjust the difference in height between the Burlington Gardens and Piccadilly ends.

At this time it was proposed that Lord George should undertake only the expense of constructing the 'skeleton' of the arcade and the colonnaded entrance façades, which was estimated at £20,000, leaving to the lessees the expense, estimated at £11,900, of finishing the individual shops in external conformity to Lord George's specification. The scheme provided for 22 open shops and 54 shops with upper rooms. Separate staircases to these were intended to facilitate separate letting of the upper parts. The shops were to vary in frontage from 10 to 20 feet.

The prospective yearly rent was estimated at £3690, from which was to be deducted £1200, the estimated yearly value of the ground given up for the site. The estimated yield would thus have been some 12 per cent on the expected outlay of £20,000. (fn. 3)

The decision to commence building, 'after numerous deliberations', was announced in The Gentleman's Magazine in September 1817. The arcade was there said to be 'for the sale of jewellery and other fancy articles' and to be intended 'for the gratification of the publick, and to give employment to industrious females'. A more probable motive was also suggested: 'What first gave birth to the idea was the great annoyance to which the garden [of Burlington House] is subject from the inhabitants of a neighbouring street throwing oyster-shells etc. over the walls'. (fn. 4) The adjacent properties overlooking the garden had certainly given trouble, and in 1870 a former pupil of Ware's, Henry Baker, stated that the arcade 'was designed solely with the object of shutting out the hundreds of windows in OldBond street'. (fn. 5)

In February 1818 the tender of Mr. Seabrook of Hatton Garden was accepted. The whole work of construction was now evidently to be undertaken by Lord George although the amount of the tender was stated in two parts, for the skeleton at £19,319 and for the completion of the building at £10,010, making £29,329 in all. By March 1819 Ware could announce that all the shops were let, (fn. 3) and all were occupied by the end of that year. (fn. 6) As built, the arcade differed from the projected designs in consisting of virtually unbroken ranges of enclosed shops. These consisted of 72 units (an enumeration still maintained), grouped at first into 21 double-width and 30 single-width shops. (fn. 6) By 1828 six double shops had been separated (Plate 74, fig. 77).

The first tenants paid initial fines totalling £9500 and were granted twenty-one-year leases from Christmas 1818. It was provided, however, that the term should cease after fourteen years unless a fine equivalent to one year's improved rent was paid at the end of the first seven years. The first rents totalled £3214 per annum. If no fines had been exacted the rents would have totalled £4259 per annum. (fn. 7) What the final cost of construction amounted to is not certainly known. Henry Baker later said that it had been about £30,000, (fn. 5) which would have approximated to the tender. He also said that the first letting yielded 14 per cent, which would be more or less true if the fines were discounted and the total rent taken to be £4259. If the previously postulated site value of £1200 per annum is deducted from the rent, the return on an expenditure of £30,000 would have been about 10 per cent.

The arcade seems to have prospered from the beginning. A comparison of the 55 shops of 1828 with the 42 of 1960 shows a fairly similar character at both dates, although at the earlier time there were relatively fewer shops selling objets d'art and articles in precious or semiprecious materials, and more selling articles of attire. The arcade then seems to have provided at least as much for women's as for men's fashions, and was as notably the place to go for a bonnet as it is now for a shirt or a tie. The 55 shops of 1828 consisted of eight milliners, eight hosiers or glovers, five linen shops, four shoemakers, three hairdressers, three jewellers or watchmakers, and two shops apiece of lacemen, hatters, umbrella or stick sellers, case-makers, tobacconists and florists. The remainder consisted (with one unspecified shop) of a shawl seller, ivory turner, goldsmith, glass manufacturer, optician, wine merchant, pastrycook, bookseller, stationer, music seller and engraver. (fn. 8)

When the first seven-year term was approaching its end Ware made the rather surprising suggestion, in July 1824, that Lord George should take advantage of 'the low value of money' at that time to sell the arcade, which he thought would improve the value of Burlington House. But the family retained the property for more than a century. In 1825 fines totalling £5888 were raised for the confirmation of the terms of leases from 1832 to 1839. (fn. 3) In 1850 Peter Cunningham reported that the Cavendishes were said to receive about £4000 in rent and that 'the actual produce (from numerous subleases) amounts, I am told, to 8640 l.' (fn. 9)

Writing in 1862 Henry Mayhew remarked on the use of upper chambers over 'a friendly bonnet shop' for purposes of prostitution: men of position who wished to avoid 'publicity in their amours' dreaded being seen in the vicinity of the arcade at certain hours. (fn. 10) When the abortive project for an arcade south of Conduit Street was being discussed in 1864 fears were expressed that a similar situation would arise. A member of the Metropolitan Board of Works stated, however, that he was often in Burlington Arcade 'and had never seen anything dreadful there'. (fn. 11)

On 26 March 1836 a fire had destroyed the Bond Street Bazaar or Western Exchange which ran from No. 10 Old Bond Street to the back of No. 14 in the arcade. The fire spread into the arcade through an iron door accidentally left open and destroyed Nos. 12–15 and 58–61. (fn. 12) In 1871 another fire caused extensive damage to a number of shops, some being reported to be 'gutted and destroyed'. (fn. 13)

These fires must have involved substantial rebuilding but the first alteration to the appearance of the arcade from the street was in 1911, when an upper storey containing offices was built over the Piccadilly front (Plate 74c). This addition was skilfully designed by Professor Beresford Pite to harmonize with the discreetly enlivened Palladianism of Ware's front. The coat of arms of the freeholder, Lord Chesham, was executed in terra-cotta by Messrs. James Stiff and Sons, of Lambeth. (fn. 14)

In the summer of 1926 Lord Chesham, the great-great-great-grandson of Lord George Cavendish, sold the freehold of the arcade, and a few months later it changed hands again for £330,000. (fn. 15) The freeholder's rental at that time amounted to £13,180 per annum. (fn. 16)

In 1931, when the arcade was owned by the London Freehold and Leasehold Property Co. Ltd., a second drastic alteration was made to the Piccadilly frontage, opening the arcade more obviously to the street. The late nineteenthcentury iron railings and Ware's Ionic screen were removed and replaced by the present wide arch, designed by Professor Beresford Pite and Partners, (fn. 17) with sculpture by Benjamin Clemens (fn. 18) (Plate 74d). An earlier design by Beresford Pite dated September 1930, had proposed shop-fronts protruding into Piccadilly, under a simpler arch. (fn. 19) The addition of 1911 still continues to form the upper part of the façade. The Times reported: 'It has been feared by the tenants in the Burlingtonarcade that the recent developments of shop design might tell against the importance of the Arcade', and that the alterations would enable the shops on either side of the entrance to have Piccadilly frontages. (fn. 17) The Architectural Review regretted this alteration in 'a Michelangelesque provincial manner that gives full scope to the mahogany shopfitting "expert"'. (fn. 20) The architects' plan, elevation and section as executed are reproduced in The Builder for 24 July 1931, p. 152.

Ware's façade at the Burlington Gardens end was replaced in 1937 by a new front, also giving open access (Plate 74b). This was designed for the owners, the House Property and Investment Co. Ltd., by Messrs. Ernest Bates and William G. Sinning. (fn. 21)

In 1940 the four northernmost bays of the arcade were destroyed by enemy action. (fn. 22) The arcade southward of this was restored in 1950. (fn. 23) The restoration of the northern section was completed by W. G. Sinning, the contractor being Sir Robert McAlpine. This part was re-opened on 16 September 1954. New finely-jointed bricks of the unusually small size of those originally used were employed at first-floor level and the interior staircases were modelled on the original stairs at Nos. 66–70. The lanterns, which date from the 1930's, are those salvaged after the bombing of 1940. The cast lead originally used in the stallboard grilles was replaced by wrought iron. (fn. 24)

In 1954 the leasehold and freehold were again united, in the possession of the Prudential Assurance Company. The Times estimated that the total rental in 1954 was about £50,000 per annum. (fn. 22)

Architectural Description

In this, the longest of London's shopping arcades, tunnel-like monotony is avoided by recurrent variations in height and width, and by division of the length into bays by a series of arches. A tent-like ceiling, set with glazed rooflights and varying in height, is broken by the recedingarches along a characteristically 'Regency' vista, while rhythmic interruption of the building line by projecting display windows, and recession from it by smaller display windows, sets up an undulation conducive to the leisurely and agreeable spending of money.

One could describe Ware's basic pattern of plan and elevation, along one side of the passage (disregarding subsequent addition and subtraction of partitions), as follows, one letter equalling one bay as defined by the arches (sixteen in all) and hyphens representing enriched arches:


Here 'a' represents a 'double' shop, with small display window flanked by doors and by larger display windows, and one storey visible above where one plain window is flanked by two bay windows; 'b' represents two smaller, separate shops, or 'single' shops, with one visible storey above them, where two plain windows are between two bay windows; 'c' is a heightened version of 'a' and takes the place of the 'inter-shop' spaces or 'saloons' earlier proposed, the three-storey fronts being set back from the building line; and 'd', between street entrance and first arch, represents one 'single' shop plus one double shop splayed back from the street entrance. The width of the passage at each arch is constant, some 12 feet.

In section, the two-storey ranges were built as proposed in 1815 with basements, ground-floor shops, first-floor living quarters (or first-floor shops), and attics in the mansard roof above the level of the arcade skylights. Ware's first floor is a full storey, not a mezzanine as in the Royal Opera Arcade. At first he suggested alternative treatments of the downward slope of the ground from north to south (a difference of nine feet), one following the declivity as now, the other with three sets of steps: at Piccadilly, before the first range of shops, and halfway along the arcade. (fn. 2) In 1817 he even proposed placing all the steps halfway along the passage, in the 'Middle Saloon', (fn. 3) but steps clearly would have impeded profitable sauntering.

Figure 77:

Burlington Arcade, elevation, section (shown without basements) and ground-floor plan

From 1819 until 1911 (and partially up to 1931) the two street entrances were of the same triple-arch design (fn. 25) (Plate 74a). The proposals of 1815, however, had been as follows: the south entrance to have a straight entablature on two Ionic columns between two piers; the north entrance to have one central arch on two small Doric columns, between two pairs of Ionic columns the full height of the arch. (fn. 2)

As built, three arches, enriched with mouldings similar to those on the ornamented arches inside, and with the same scrolled keystones, were carried on four piers with attached three-quarter columns of the same Renaissance Ionic order with plain shafts as the pilasters along the passage. (fn. 26) Above the modillioned cornice was a parapet, pierced by balustraded openings over the side arches and having a plain lettered panel in the centre. Buttresses as high as the parapet, and capped with a plain moulding, stood on either side. Ware's ornamental detail along the passage, corresponding to that of the original entrances, reveals the intentionally 'Palladian' style of his design, in keeping with Burlington House itself, for all the 'Regency' character of the arcade as a whole.

Beresford Pite's addition of 1911 at the Piccadilly end was sympathetic to both these aspects (Plate 74c). The parapet was removed and a similar one, re-using the old balusters, (fn. 19) was placed above the new storey and invested with the Chesham arms, three stags' heads cabossed, supported by a buck and a greyhound. Pite's repetition of the triple-arch theme, diminuendo, with paired Ionic columns, preserved both the spirit and the scale of the original, and the lowered buttresses framing the latter now supported simple volutes binding the new composition with the old. This upper storey of 1911 (with tile decoration added in 1931) still stands, although its basis in both scale and spirit was removed twenty years after when Pite was asked to provide the present, more open entrance (Plate 74d).

This is a curious design. In 1931 Edwardian Baroque was even more out of fashion than Ware's delicate screen. The simpler handling of the preliminary design dated September 1930, (fn. 19) in its delicacy and verve of line, and in the elegant boldness of its two large allegorical figures, may show Pite's own preference. In the event, below the mannerly addition of 1911 there now yawns a proscenium arch emphasized by vigorous mouldings and scrolled half-pediments sheltering little genre figures of uncertain significance, and flanked by theatrical scrolled consoles bearing helmeted busts. The soffit of the arch bears panels with sheaves of leaves in low relief, slightly art nouveau in feeling. In effect, the present Piccadilly entrance suggests, more than Pite's first (1930) design did, a monumental fair-ground entrance.

The north entrance was rebuilt in 1937 (Plate 74b). W. G. Sinning designed a plain parapet faced with a simplified form of the Chesham arms in relief, above a segmental-arched opening half hidden by a semicircular canopy of reinforced concrete faced with cast lead, between low pylons bearing covered fluted vases. The total effect is quiet and bland in contrast to the turbulent arch on Piccadilly. During rebuilding after bomb damage, the same architect reconstructed the low conical sectors of Ware's roof just inside the north entrance. (fn. 27)

While Portland stone was used for all versions of the street entrances, brick was used inside the arcade, visibly at first-floor level and stuccoed for arches and pilasters. Ware's prospectus of July 1817 (fn. 3) stipulated that 'the Skylights are intended to rest on open Ironwork', a modest gesture toward the new world of iron and glass.

The ground-floor elevations within the arcade consist entirely of shop-fronts, which are not today entirely consistent. But the maximum projection of display windows has not been changed although the individual glass panes are no longer small. Messrs. Lord of Nos. 66–70 (who continue the name of the first occupant of Nos. 69–70, John Lord, glover and hosier) possess a plate-glass insurance policy taken out in 1875, which might indicate that it was not until this year that they changed from the old small panes. Early engravings suggest that the original fascias and stallboards had a light-toned finish, possibly wood-grained or marbled. The style of fascia lettering on the older shops, sanserif letters with strokes of equal thickness, in gilt on black, may date from the installation of new glass in the latter part of the century, but could be earlier. Lord's still have, at No. 70, one of the original staircases, a small spiral in plan with simple iron supports and a plain curving mahogany handrail which dies into the wall panelling at the bottom.

An important but little-noted vestige of the original arcade is the oblique angle still retained by some shop doorways. It is clear from Ware's proposals of 1815, (fn. 2) both from the term 'angle shops' in his estimates and from the accompanying plans, that entrances to 'double' shops were from the first intended to be canted back from the site line, in mirrored pairs, as now at Nos. 68–69 and several others; and certain 'single' shops (e.g. Nos. 30 and 31; also Nos. 66–67, later combined) show this feature, which probably prevailed throughout. The small recesses thus created not only added visual variety to the larger intervals in the prospect, they further accentuated the modest projection of the display windows. The trend from proposed to executed design was, in fact, toward compression of doors and stairs, for emphasis on display space; the same economic motive, that is, which opened up the street entrances more than a century later.


  • 1. Survey of London, vol. XXIX, 1960, pp. 242, 249.
  • 2. Royal Academy Library, collection of Lord Chesham.
  • 3. Chatsworth MSS., box 86, bundle in section 1.
  • 4. The Gentleman's Magazine, 1817, part II, p. 272.
  • 5. The Builder, 24 Dec. 1870, p. 1024.
  • 6. R. B.
  • 7. Chatsworth MSS., box 86, bundle in section I; ibid., Burlington Arcade rental.
  • 8. Robson's London Commercial Directory, 1828.
  • 9. Peter Cunningham, Handbook of London, 1850, p. 90.
  • 10. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1862, vol. IV, pp. 217, 222.
  • 11. The Builder, 20 Feb. 1864, pp. 132–3.
  • 12. The Morning Herald, 28–29 March 1836.
  • 13. The Builder, 26 Aug. 1871, p. 676.
  • 14. The Architectural Review, Aug. 1911, p. 103.
  • 15. The Times, 9 Aug., 29 Sept., 28 Oct. 1926.
  • 16. M.L.R. 1926/2/514.
  • 17. The Times, 14 Jan. 1931.
  • 18. The Builder, 24 July 1931, p. 146.
  • 19. R.I.B.A. Library, Beresford Pite drawings.
  • 20. The Architectural Review, July 1931, p. 32.
  • 21. The Builder, 4 June 1937, pp. 1164, 1191.
  • 22. The Times, 17 Sept. 1954.
  • 23. The Daily Telegraph, 11 Sept. 1950.
  • 24. The Builder, 17 Sept. 1954, pp. 450–4; The Times, 17 Sept. 1954.
  • 25. Tallis, London Street Views, c. 1839; James Elmes, Metropolitan Improvements, 1827; Country Life, 14 Feb. 1931, p. 194; The Builder, 4 June 1937, p. 1164.
  • 26. Tallis, op. cit.; R.I.B.A. Library, Beresford Pite drawings.
  • 27. The Builder, 17 Sept. 1954, pp. 450–4.