Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1963.
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The University of London at No. 6 Burlington Gardens: Stone Conduit Close
This 'example of a refined or enriched style of Palladian or Italian architecture' was designed in 1866–7 by (Sir) James Pennethorne, acting as architect to the Office of Works, to house London University, and was opened by Queen Victoria in pouring rain on 11 May 1870. The site had previously been part of the garden of Burlington House. The building served its original purpose until the removal of the University to the Imperial Institute in 1900. Throughout the period of occupation of its Burlington Gardens premises the function of the University was confined to the conduct of examinations and the bestowal of degrees: no courses of instruction were given and thus a building of comparatively modest dimensions sufficed to house the University in its entirety.
It was the last of Pennethorne's works, being completed in the year before his death, and an early biographer regarded it as his 'most complete and most successful design'. (fn. 1) When newly built it was admired for the liberal use of sculpture in an elevational design which expressed unaffectedly the simple and convenient plan. In so far as the façade possessed this last merit, it reflects the resourcefulness of its architect, for the history of the design is one of stylistic changes up to and beyond the moment when building actually commenced.
These changes were the acts not of the University but of the Government and Parliament, and their discussion was involved with party animosities in the House of Commons: the building was paid for out of public funds and erected under the direction successively of Liberal and Conservative First Commissioners of Works.
That this was so resulted from the University's financial dependence on the Treasury, established by its original charter of 1836. Previous to the Government's erection of the building in Burlington Gardens the University had always been dependent on the Government for the provision of more or less temporary accommodation. Its first headquarters had been at Somerset House, supplemented by rooms hired as necessity arose—'sometimes Exeter Hall, sometimes Thatched House Tavern, and sometimes Willis's Rooms'. (fn. 2) In 1853 the Government resumed possession of the apartments at Somerset House and provided other accommodation at Marlborough House. (fn. 3) Probably at the end of 1855 the University removed to the Burlington House site, (fn. 3) where it was certainly located by February 1856. (fn. 4) It seems to have been housed at first in the mansion itself but after the installation there in 1857 of the Royal Society and other learned societies the University was accommodated in the east wing. It shared the use of the west wing with the Royal Society. (fn. 5)
The prospect of permanent accommodation of its own had appeared in February 1859 when the Conservative First Commissioner of Works, Lord John Manners, asked the University to state what premises it would need in the new buildings then being planned to cover the whole Burlington House site. This scheme fell through, and the University remained in its temporary quarters. These were increasingly inadequate: in 1858 there had been 466 candidates for examination; by 1863 there were 1018. (fn. 6) In November of the latter year the University sent a request to the First Commissioner of Works, by then a Liberal, Mr. W. F. Cowper (later Lord Mount-Temple), adverting to the scheme of 1859 and asking to be provided with premises adequate to the purposes of the University. (fn. 7) In June 1864 a deputation waited on the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to press its claims. It stressed the need for rooms in which to hold practical examinations in medicine and science. It did not wish to move from its existing central position and thought that the northern part of the Burlington House grounds fronting Burlington Gardens, the appropriation of which for a new National Gallery had recently been rejected by Parliament, would be very suitable. (fn. 8) Palmerston was sympathetic; a letter urging the University's needs was sent to the Office of Works in November, and Pennethorne was instructed by Mr. Cowper to prepare block plans for a building on the proposed site, which he did by December. (fn. 9) He estimated the cost at £65,000. (fn. 10) The following year passed without anything being done, despite a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone, in April, (fn. 11) a statement in the Commons in June by a spokesman who disclosed that the matriculation examinations were held in the Volunteers' shed behind Burlington House (fn. 2) and a strongly worded letter to the new Prime Minister, Earl Russell, in November. (fn. 12) Finally, at the end of January 1866, the University was told that the Government hoped to introduce legislation for a building on the Burlington Gardens site, (fn. 13) and Pennethorne was instructed by Mr. Cowper to prepare plans. (fn. 14) In April he laid these, approved by the ViceChancellor and Senate of the University, before Mr. Cowper (fn. 15) (Plate 72a, 72b). In the same month a vote of £20,000 for the building was made in the House of Commons. Mr. Cowper said that the elevation had not yet been settled: questions were asked about its relation to the new buildings being planned by the Government and the Royal Academy on the rest of the Burlington House site, and Mr. Cowper promised to lay plans for the use of the whole area before the House prior to the commencement of building. This promise was later construed by some Members as an undertaking to obtain direct Parliamentary approval for the proposed elevation of the University's building. (fn. 16)
For some episodes in the history of the design the evidence is a 'Memorandum respecting the General Plans and Designs for the Front towards Burlington Gardens' printed in the minutes of the University Senate for 1870, and there appended to a letter from Pennethorne of June in that year, presenting to the Senate his various designs for the building. The authority or derivation of the memorandum is not stated but it was presumably drawn up by Pennethorne. In some particulars it differs from the histories of the designs given by contemporary and subsequent commentators.
In May 1866 Mr. Cowper asked Pennethorne to prepare working drawings and specifications for the foundations. (fn. 15) According to the memorandum he was 'not to include therein any part of the building that might be affected by the decision that must be made shortly as to the Elevation', but in June Pennethorne, when submitting the drawings, reported that he had been obliged to make a detailed elevation, 'of a plain Classic character' without which he could not have prepared the plan of the front wall: he did not, however, submit the elevation. (fn. 15) Pennethorne's obituarist, Arthur Cates, later described it as 'Greek in character, dignified but somewhat plain'. (fn. 17) In the following month Mr. Cowper was succeeded as First Commissioner of Works by the Conservative, Lord John Manners. An attempt led by Henry (later Sir Henry) Layard and A. J. Beresford-Hope in the Commons to revive the plan to use the site for a National Gallery was defeated (fn. 18) and in August Pennethorne was authorized to invite tenders for the foundations of the building. He was also instructed to submit an elevation, and promptly produced the 'plain Classic' design. (fn. 19) Lord John Manners then asked for a different design, 'suggesting also in very general terms' (according to the memorandum) 'the adoption of a character more Mediaeval or Renaissance; but without fettering the Architect as regards style'. Within a week or two Pennethorne had complied, with a design generally designated as 'Italian Gothic', which met with Lord John Manners's approval and which (again according to the memorandum) was preferred to the first design by both Pennethorne himself and the registrar of the University, Dr. W. B. Carpenter, who seems to have been active in these preparations. (fn. 15) The account of this change of style given in The Times when the building was opened in 1870 (fn. 20) thus appears to err in suggesting that the alteration was imposed on the architect by Lord John Manners.
The official approval of Pennethorne's second design was communicated to him on 29 August 1866 and two days afterwards the tender of Messrs. Jackson and Shaw of Earl Street, Westminster, for the foundations of the building was accepted. (fn. 21) The Builder described the design a week later: the style was to be 'that of North Italy, transitional—i.e. between Classic and Gothic, but with the Gothic forms and feeling decidedly predominating'. It announced that work was about to begin, 'unless, indeed, any change in the Ministry should be brought about before it be commenced, when who shall say what might occur, since style is made to depend on political ascendency'. (fn. 22) A further change of style was in fact to be made although it did not require a change of Ministry to bring it about.
According to the memorandum it was not until more than three months after the official approval had been given that Pennethorne was authorized to show this second design to the Senate, on 14 December. Some two months later, on 22 February 1867, a committee of the Senate voted for the rejection of the design. (fn. 15) It criticized the façade in some detail, rejecting it partly because 'ornament should be subservient to structural expression'. (fn. 23) Three days later the Office of Works accepted a second tender from the contractors for the carcase of the ground storey. (fn. 24) On 22 March Lord John Manners wrote to Earl Granville, Chancellor of the University. He stated that he had asked Pennethorne to send the two elevations, presumably for inspection by the Senate, but added that although he was 'anxious to consult the convenience and wishes of the Senate on all practical points' he was 'not prepared to discuss other questions with them'. He thought it his duty to let nothing interfere with the early and economical completion of the building which was 'now making substantial and satisfactory progress'. (fn. 25) A few days afterwards the new buildings committee of the Senate resolved that 'the Modern style of architecture would be preferable either to the Mediaeval or to the Italian-Gothic': (fn. 26) the Senate then voted in favour of a design harmonious with Burlington House in preference to either of those shown to them. (fn. 27)
Lord John Manners's resolve to pursue what he conceived to be his duty was destined to be frustrated. Dissatisfaction with the design he had sponsored found expression in the House of Commons on 5 April when the attack was led by the Liberal, Henry Layard. The First Commissioner was charged with failing to fulfil his predecessor's supposed promise to submit the elevation to the House for approval and with failing in courtesy towards the University by neglect of consultation, although the building was said already to have reached a height of 14 feet. The debate became entangled with recrimination over the alterations to Burlington House and Members took up the University's proposition that its building should be architecturally harmonious with that mansion. On this point at least the criticisms were specious and Beresford-Hope, no unwavering supporter of the Government in such matters, pointed out that Burlington House and the University building could be seen in one coup d'oeil only 'from a balloon'. Lord John Manners strongly denied forcing his taste on the University, but felt obliged to promise that building would be halted for a fortnight 'so that the question of style should be further prejudged'. (fn. 28) The two designs were exhibited in the library of the House of Commons (fn. 15) and on 31 May the question came to a head with the vote for £20,000 to continue the building. Layard resumed his attack; Lord John Manners cited the opinion of the Royal Academy building committee that their building and the University's 'would be perfectly isolated and distinct from each other', and said that the University building had now reached a height of 19 feet. But the amendment that neither of the existing designs should be executed was carried. (fn. 29)
A week later Lord John Manners stated that the House of Commons in its capacity of building committee would have an opportunity to inspect a new design. He did not think it any part of his duty to seek the opinion of the University. (fn. 30) A few days later Dr. John Storrar, chairman of the Convocation of the University, wrote to the registrar, Dr. Carpenter. The building subcommittee of the University felt strongly 'that the University should assert its right to be heard in the matter of the elevation'. It was, however, desirable to impress on Lord John Manners that the University was not influenced by any such hostility to him as may have influenced Layard: on the contrary it would be glad to help him 'in getting over his difficulties in the House of Commons'. Regarding the architectural relation to Burlington House there seems to have been some change of opinion as the sub-committee was also said to feel strongly that the building should be so designed 'as to present the features of a separate and individual edifice—that it should be an University building and not an University in apartments, situate in the rear of a structure called Burlington House'. (fn. 25)
In the course of June Pennethorne produced his third design, taking (according to the memorandum) 'the front of Burlington House as a foundation'. (fn. 15) It was exhibited in the library of the House of Commons and on 9 July Lord John Manners announced that in the absence of any hostile criticism of the design he would instruct Pennethorne to execute it, with some alterations in the details suggested by (Sir) William Tite, the Member for Bath. (fn. 31) Two days later Pennethorne was instructed to prepare working drawings. (fn. 32)
Building at last went ahead without interruption. In April Lord John Manners had estimated that the extra cost caused by a change of style would be between £7000 and £8000. (fn. 33) It is not known whether the existing building, upward of 19 feet high, had to be demolished before work could go on again. The sides and rear of the building are still very largely in the 'ItalianGothic' style, and abundantly justify the substantial objections, if not all the incidental arguments, brought forward by the critics of Lord John Manners. It may be that the structure had been carried up to a significant height in this style only at the back and sides, where it was continued, perhaps in simplified form, while the entirely distinct façade was applied at the front. In any event, by November The Builder could report that the execution of the third design was being proceeded with by Jackson and Shaw; the original estimate of £60,000 submitted to Parliament would be 'considerably increased'. (fn. 34) In his obituary of Pennethorne Arthur Cates paid a tribute to the contractors: 'notwithstanding the changes of design varying their contracts, they carried out the whole without difference or dispute'. (fn. 17)
In the same month Pennethorne was writing to the University authorities about the identity of the numerous statues intended to form part of the façade, as Lord John Manners thought the University should be consulted on this point. (fn. 35) In the following March the Senate named the twentytwo figures of its choice. A diffidently worded query from Lord John Manners, whether Bentham was the most proper representative of English law, met the conclusive rejoinder that 'no name can be selected so suitable as that of Bentham'. A further doubt in the First Commissioner's mind whether Shakespeare would be better placed as representative of the arts than of modern knowledge found little more response, although the Senate was willing to replace him on the balustrade by David Hume and accommodate Shakespeare within the building itself. (fn. 36)
In May 1868 Parliament voted £22,000 for the completion of the building which Layard described as 'in a fair way of being finished'. (fn. 37) By July some of the new rooms were in use. (fn. 38) The date of erection is given in an inscribed tablet on the front as 1869. The official opening took place on 11 May 1870 when the Queen performed the ceremony before a crowded gathering of academical and political notabilities, whose 'inclination to cheer' was 'promptly checked by the authorities'. (fn. 39) Among the assembly the 'Indian religious reformer' Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen was prominent and supporting figures on the platform included the two public men who as First Commissioner of Works had concerned themselves with the design: it does not seem to have been recorded that Pennethorne was present.
Comment on the 'hastily prepared design' in journals of the day and among Pennethorne's professional colleagues was favourable, although it was regretted that the building's position gave no point of view from which the elevation could be appreciated as a formal and symmetrical composition. The Builder thought the details lacked 'truthfulness in construction, and in the use of material' but praised the building's expression of 'the nature of the purpose for which it has been erected'. (fn. 40) The Times, observing the 'union of simplicity and richness', noted that the decoration, though elaborate and abundant, was 'remarkable for a general character of flatness that is almost without parallel in any other important structure of the Victorian age' and that this threw into prominence the 'main outlines of form'. The bare appearance of the interiors was remarked upon, and the intention that 'they shall hereafter be enriched with all the glories of gold and colour', so that 'the art of the painter shall come to complete the work which architecture and sculpture have so well begun'. (fn. 20) The display of sculpture, the total cost of which is said to have been 'certainly under £4500' (fn. 41) was a notable feature of the façade. The Times of 9 May 1870 recorded the authorship of the statues. Above the portico, Newton, Bentham, Milton and Harvey, representing Science, Law, Arts and Medicine, are carved by Joseph Durham. On the central balustrade are the representatives of 'ancient culture'—Galen, Cicero and Aristotle by J. S. Westmacott, and Plato, Archimedes and Justinian (replacing the Senate's first choice of Tribonian) (fn. 42) by W. F. Woodington. On the east wing are six 'illustrious foreigners'—Leibnitz, Cuvier and Linnaeus in the ground-storey niches by P. Macdowell, and Galileo, Goethe and Laplace on the balustrade by E. W. Wyon. These are balanced on the west wing by 'English worthies'—Adam Smith, Locke and Bacon in the niches by W. Theed, junior, and Hunter, Hume (replacing the original choice of Shakespeare), and Davy (replacing Dalton) (fn. 42) on the balustrade by M. Noble. In consideration that 'the genius of Shakespeare was independent of academic influence' (fn. 20) he was to be distinguished by a place inside, on the staircase.
The University remained in Burlington Gardens for some thirty years. Its convenient day-to-day use of the building was hindered by lack of complete control over the premises, which it occupied rather in the status of a department of government. As early as January 1871 trouble was occasioned by the tendency of furnishings to wander from the rooms for which they were intended by the Office of Works. The First Commissioner expressed regret at the difficulties 'in dealing with the Furniture of the University' but observed that this arose 'from the unfortunate circumstance that its business has to be transacted by the Officers of the Crown instead of its own Officers', and letters explanatory of the precise use of desks and carpets were exchanged between the registrar and the secretary of the Office of Works. (fn. 43)
Whatever the merits of Pennethorne's plan, the need for more accommodation came increasingly to be felt, and by 1888 proposals were being made for 'a lateral extension of the South-West Halls and the addition of a story to the South wing': (fn. 44) two years later the Office of Works contemplated raising the southern side of the building by 16 or 17 feet, but apparently nothing was done. (fn. 45) About this time the Government 'cast covetous eyes on the building' and negotiations began for the University's removal. (fn. 3) In 1900 the University surrendered this site in the heart of London and moved to the Imperial Institute building in South Kensington. (fn. 46) The Royal Academy had asked the Government for first refusal of the vacated premises, (fn. 47) but after brief occupation as offices for the National Antarctic Expedition (fn. 48) the building was made over, early in 1902, to the Civil Service Commission, (fn. 49) which still occupies it, although intending to move in 1963. Since 1928 the British Academy has occupied rooms in the building which were reconstructed and adapted for their use to the plans of Arnold Mitchell. (fn. 50)
The main entrance of the somewhat pretentious building that resulted from the changes described above leads, by way of a vestibule and across a wide central corridor, or entrance hall, to the principal staircase. There are offices and waiting rooms, connected by a lobby, on each side of the vestibule, and cloakrooms, lavatories and service stairs flanking the main staircase compartment. Beyond these, on either hand, are corridors leading right and left from the ends of the entrance hall and, originally, giving access to a large lecture theatre occupying the east and a balancing examination room at the west end of the building, as well as to a suite of examination rooms in a subsidiary range lying alongside the main block immediately behind the principal staircase. The lecture room and its corresponding examination room, which were originally equal in height to two normal storeys, have subsequently each been divided into two floors (Plate 72c).
Wall and ceiling decoration in the main lobby and staircase compartment is sparse and flat, setting off the opulent gravity of the heavy polished grey marble handrail and ornamental balusters of the staircase, which rises from behind a triple-arched screen in a wide central flight, branches right and left, and then returns in parallel flights against the wall to finish with quadrant turns of the balustrade before the triple-arched screen of the first-floor landing. Straight ahead is the only room of consequence now remaining, the former Senate room, later used as the Civil Service Commission's board-room. Over the central door, inside the room, are the arms of the University in painted stucco supported by putti; the cipher with entwined U and L still appears on the wall of the first-floor lobby outside. Around the Senate room wall, spaced to form wide and narrow bays, are plain-shafted Corinthian pilasters, on high bases, four to the short sides and six to the long sides of the room, and these are matched above the cornice by panelled shafts. Each of the three tall windows in the north wall has a glazed lunette above it. Corresponding blank lunettes above the cornice occupy each of the three wider bays on the south wall, and each central bay on the end walls. Rosettes, brackets and capitals are picked out in gold. The ceiling is divided into heavy rectangular compartments, and the general effect of the room, with its two white marble fireplaces and its doorcases of the Palladian type, was obviously intended to be ceremoniously sumptuous.
Pennethorne's lecture theatre in the east wing, of which little but the ceiling can now be detected, was originally the show-piece of the place. (fn. 51) The seats were arranged in semicircular rising tiers. The walls appear to have had alternating bands of coloured stone. Behind the speaker's platform were three great arched niches containing reliefs or paintings, and above these an ornamented frieze running round the room below the level of the high windows. Statues of four Muses stood on heavy brackets between the windows over the podium. The ceiling is divided by heavily moulded beams into nine square compartments, three by three, the central compartment having an octagonal skylight, and each of the others an octagonal sunk coved panel from which there formerly flowered an elaborately moulded pendent boss. The ceiling is now unequally shared by two first-floor rooms. In the west wing a similar ceiling design can be made out over the present warren of offices. On the ground floor of the former lecture theatre, the present quarters of the British Academy reveal little of the original layout. The ground floor of the west wing is chiefly distinguished now by the eight cast-iron pillars inserted to support the new floor in 1899. (fn. 52)
The north front is of Portland stone, with bands and details of red Mansfield stone (Plate 73). It is generally of two storeys and consists of a centre block of five bays, between slightly projecting pavilions carried up as square turrets above the main cornice, the whole being flanked by somewhat lower side wings, each of three bays, and set back behind the face of the centre block. A single-storey porch, having a Doric entablature supported on rusticated piers flanked by unfluted Doric columns on deep plinths, projects in front of the five middle bays. It is crowned by an open balustrade with seated statues over the four central piers, and large pedestals, or altars, as they were disparagingly called by The Builder, (fn. 40) over the angles. The Doric entablature is continued over the whole front of the building, except where it is interrupted by niches set in rectangular frames in each bay of the wings. A square-headed window with a simple architrave lights the ground storey of the tower pavilions.
The upper storey of the centre block has an applied Corinthian order, of pilasters at the angles of the tower pavilions and three-quarter columns between them, the columns next the pavilions standing in the angles between them and the main face of the block. The entablature, with foliated frieze in low relief, breaks forward to the appropriate distance over both pilasters and threequarter columns, and the five middle bays are crowned by an open balustrade, extending between the square turrets, and having a sculptured figure standing above each column. Between each pair of columns is an arch, of Venetian form, with stepped imposts carried across the opening and supported by small Corinthian columns in the angles. A frieze of guilloche ornament stretches between the capitals of this lesser order and, with the stepped impost above it, is carried across the pavilions as a bandcourse—an example of Pennethorne's disregard for the finer shades of architectural meaning in the forms he employed to obtain an effect. The five arches have scrolled keystones and the spandrels are decorated with panels in low relief. The three central ones, with glazed lunettes above the springing, are those of the former Senate room, later the Civil Service Commission's board-room; the remaining two have solid tympani bearing the Royal Arms against a somewhat inconsequent floral background in low relief.
In the tower pavilions the first-floor windows are framed between diminutive attached Corinthian columns carrying pedimented entablatures, whilst, above the stringcourse already referred to, each has a rectangular panel containing a royal badge with female supporters emerging from foliated scrolls. The top storeys, rising above the rest of the building as square turrets, have, at the angles, panelled pilasters of a Corinthian type over which the entablatures break forward. They are surmounted by open balustrades. A clock occupies the front face of the eastern turret and a wind vane that of the western one.
Although each of the wings originally consisted of a single room of lofty proportions they are, architecturally speaking, of two storeys, divided horizontally by the Doric entablature already mentioned, and vertically by square buttresses. The angle buttresses are rusticated through both storeys; the intermediate ones only at the ground storey, their upper parts taking the form of boldly projecting Corinthian piers or pilasters. The upper entablature, disregarding logic, breaks forward over rusticated angle piers and intermediate pilasters alike, and is crowned by an open balustrade. Sculptured figures stand, like finials, above each buttress. The semi-circular niches in rectangular frames which take the place of windows in the ground storey have already been mentioned. They are filled with sculptured figures. In the upper storey, each bay is divided into three by a pair of attached Corinthian columns standing between the buttresses. Unaccountably the tall narrow windows between them have segmental heads.
Round the sides of the east and west wings the Portland stone stops abruptly after the returns of the rusticated angle buttresses and terminal statuary of the front, except for the first-floor windows which can be seen from the street and are therefore modest echoes of those on the front. Otherwise all is of red brick with dark bands. When the west wing was divided into two storeys in 1899, windows were cut in the ground floor with segmental arches of gauged bricks, the extrados tracing the line of a two-centred arch, and the segmental intrados splay-cut to produce a central pendent. (fn. 53) The centre of the south front, with its windows divided by large cast-iron colonnettes under gauged brick heads, is the surviving clue to Pennethorne's second design. A vertical dimension of just under nineteen feet from the foundations to the entrance floor and including the basement windows, on one of the contract drawings, may indicate the height the building had reached before the question of style was finally settled. (fn. 54)