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6 Burlington Gardens, by Sir James Pennethorne. 1866-69. Portland stone; red Mansfield stone. This building lies just north of the Royal Academy, in the grounds of Burlington House.

Pennethorne designed this building to house the offices of the University of London in its early years, when the University operated largely as an examining board. The building was opened by Queen Victoria in May 1870, and served its original purpose until 1899, after which the University moved on to the Imperial Institute building in South Kensington. Since then 6 Burlington Gardens has been occupied by several institutions, most notably the Museum of Mankind. It was damaged by fire in August 2006, and the Royal Academy is now redeveloping it for exhibition space and other functions. At the west side is the entrance to the Royal Academy Schools.

As so often, Pennethorne had to work under pressure of time, space and budget. Debate about the design, and consequent changes to it, went on even after the building had begun to rise from the ground. This reflects the Battle of the Styles, as Pennethorne was forced to veer between the Classic, the Gothic and the "Modern" (Sheppard). A particular issue was how far the building's appearance should harmonise with that of the Royal Academy itself, though the politician and "architectural pundit" A. J. Beresford Hope pointed out testily that the only way to see both buildings together was to go up in a balloon (Crook). As for space, it was realised even then that there was no angle from which the new structure's "thirteen bay Italianate façade" (Weinreb and Hibbert 111) could be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, the completed work was "admired for the liberal use of sculpture in an elevational design which expressed unaffectedly the simple and convenient plan" (Sheppard).

St James Westminster, Part 2 in The Survey of London, which British History Online has made available on the Web, provides a detailed history of the building, its original purpose, sculptural program, and reception: Pennethorne designed “this 'example of a refined or enriched style of Palladian or Italian architecture' . . . acting as architect to the Office of Works,” and this last of the architect's works — it saw completion the year before his death — “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.” The building received generally favorable reviews although it quite properly “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, showing the clear influence of the Ruskinian principle of truth to materials, “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'.’ Unfortunately, like the magnificent City of London School, another educational structure with a grand sculptural program, 6, Burlington Gardens no longer houses the organization for which it was designed, the result being that its grand statement of the British and European canonical figures in literature, philosophy, and science now appears an unintentionally ironic statement of both the loss of belief in such canons and the subservient position of education in relation to commerce.

Two of the figures the members of the Senate chose to represent their institution of higher learning to the world clearly distinguish it from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge: Bentham and Hume, both notorious atheists, who would have hardly fit in universities originally founded to produce Anglican clergy! Bentham, moreoever, the founder of the Utilitarianism and Philosophical Radicalism carried on by Herbert Spencer and James and J. S. Mill, would also have been very out of place in Oxbridge.

Left: Joseph Durham's four seated figures portraying Newton, Bentham, Milton and Harvey (representing Science, Law, Arts and Medicine). Right: View of the building looking eastward. On the central balustrade are the representatives of 'ancient culture' Galen, Cicero, and Aristotle by J. S. Westmacott, and Plato, Archimedes, and Justinian by W. F. Woodington. On the east wing are six 'illustrious foreigners'— Leibnitz, Cuvier, and Linnaeus.

Related material

Sources

Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Hope, Alexander James Beresford Beresford (1820-1887)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 18 December 2007.

Sheppard, F. H. W., gen. ed. "The University of London at No.6 Burlington Gardens." Survey of London, Vols 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. 1963. (This is an excellent source, giving much more detail about the problems Pennethorne faced.)

Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.

The University of London at No. 6 Burlington Gardens.” Web. 10 October 2011. From St James Westminster, Part 2 — volumes 31 and 32 of The Survey of London, ed. F. H. W. Sheppard (General Editor). London: 1963.


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Last modified 11 October 2011