RICHARD JEFFERIES contrasted the pigeons outside the British Museum (‘To them the building is merely a rock, pierced with convenient caverns’) with the humans vainly seeking enlightenment inside, in an article first published in the Pall Mall Gazette and subsequently reprinted in his The Life of the Fields (1884). Jefferies admitted he felt ‘nearer knowledge’ standing beneath its portico and enjoying the ‘southern blue’ of the sky than when turning a book’s pages in its former Reading Room. Many of us may have felt a similar feeling of a great weight slipping from our shoulders on departure from this august, but exhausting, place.
The British Museum was the world’s first public museum and the first stone of the present building was laid 200 years ago this year. The museum’s origins pre-dated that, however, arising out of the library, and botany and natural history specimens, of Sir Hans Sloane, purchased for the nation on his death in 1753 and subsequently augmented with manuscripts and antiquities from other collectors. These were presented in the specially acquired Montagu House, built by Robert Hooke for the 1st Duke of Montagu in the 1670s.
Old paintings show it to have been a large, red-brick building reminiscent of Kensington Palace, with a leafy outlook unimaginable now. It opened as the British Museum in 1759, but, by the early 19th century, it was plain the collection was outgrowing the premises. When the Elgin Marbles arrived in 1816, they were initially housed in a temporarily erected shed. In 1820, Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867) was commissioned to begin preparations for the construction of a new building on the same site. The work was undertaken in stages, with parts of the old house only demolished as sections of the new building went up in its place.
Smirke was a devout neo-Classicist, unflinching in his admiration for Greek architecture, which he described as ‘simple, grand, magnificent without ostentation’. He had already introduced the long frontage with a Greek Doric portico to London with his design for the Covent Garden Theatre in 1808 (burnt down in 1856). A quadrangular structure, built around a large, initially empty, courtyard, the British Museum’s south façade, with its projecting wings, followed the model of a Palladian house, but Smirke’s admiration for the severe plainness of Greek buildings (‘an excess of ornament is in all cases a symptom of a vulgar or degenerate taste’) is reflected in the absence of decorative effects, with plain ashlar walls behind the majestic Ionic colonnade, 370ft long and consisting of 44 columns. Sir Richard Westmacott’s pedimental sculpture, The Progress of Civilisation, was not added until 1851.
Yet Smirke did use new construction materials and techniques. In 1817, he had been the first British architect to build concrete foundations for the Millbank Penitentiary on the Thames, seven years after, according to J. Mordaunt Crook, author of The British Museum, he was probably the first to use loadbearing cast-iron beams, at Cirencester Park in Gloucestershire. At the British Museum, cast-iron beams, disguised by plaster coffering and timber, supported ceilings and roofs. Portland stone-facing slabs were tied to the brick core by iron clamps.
Smirke remained involved with the building project until his retirement through ill health in 1845, after which his brother Sydney oversaw the work to its completion in 1857. By this time, austere Greek Revivalism had fallen from fashion, replaced by a Victorian love of ornament, and the largest secular building in London at that time, with one of the capital’s finest rooms, the Greciandetailed King’s Library, was much criticised. Even today, it is sometimes accorded only grudging respect. However, its situation overlooking the rather narrow, crowded Great Russell Street gives it a pleasing element of immediacy and surprise.