The Athenæum Club by Decimus Burton. 1824. Waterloo Place and Pall Mall, London. When the club was first built in 1830, it had two stories; another was added later. Photograph by George P. Landow July 2005; camera position: the Crimean War monument across Pall Mall. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Athenæum and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one

The Athenæum, which Richard Saul Wurman describes "as unforgetably beautiful" (51), faces what was originally The United Service Club by John Nash and Decimus Burton (1828), which was originally founded for military officers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars and now houses the Institute of Directors. The Athenæum, as it turns out, also had a relation to Britain's conquest of Napoleon, for as Ian Jenkins of the British Museum, points out

The Athenæum was founded in 1824 as a 'Club for Literary and Scientific men and followers of the Fine arts.' The building rose in 1829-30 as part of the new civic architecture in Greek style by which London was embellished after the battle of Waterloo. Following the defeat of Napoloneon, whose ambition was to transfer Rome to Paris, Britannia Victrix had sought a different model from Antiquity by which to shape her capital city. She found it in the democratic society of Periclean Athens. On the balcony over the porch of the Athenæum, Pallas Athena — a close replica by E. H. Baily of the Athena Belletri — was set up to preside over Waterloo Place. She was the warrior goddess of wisdom and patron deity of ancient Athens. [p. 149] Inside, on the staircase, a copy of the Apollo Belvedere, commander of the nine muses, stands watch over this modern museion. In niches of the flank walks of the entrance hall were casts of two statues then as now, in the Louvre, the so-called Venus Genetrix and the Diane de Gabies.

Past members include Joseph Conrad, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, W. Holman Hunt, Thomas Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Leighton, John Ruskin, and many members of the Anglican clergy.

Joseph Hatton's Clubland (1890) on the Athenæum

"The Athenæum is the chief literary club of the metropolis. It is built upon part of the old courtyard of Carlton House. The architecture is of the Grecian order, severe and impressive. The frieze is copied from that of the Parthenon. It was the colossal figure of Minerva over the Roman Doric portico that inspired the epigram : —

"Ye travellers who pass by, just stop and behold,
And see, don't you think it a sin,
That Minerva herself is left out in the cold,
While her owls are all gorging within.

"The figure is by Bailey, and is a fine example of his art. The hall is divided by scagliola columns and pilasters, the capitals being copied from the Choragic monument of Lysicrates. In this "exchange or lounge " (to (quote Timbs), "where the members meet," there are two fire-places; " over each of them, in a niche, is a statue — the 'Diana Robing' and the 'Venus Victrix,' selected by Sir Thomas Lawrence — a very fine contrivance for sculptural display." In the library hangs Sir Thomas's last work. It is a portrait of George IV. He was engaged upon it a few hours before he died. Among the many fine busts in the various rooms is Rysbach's Pope, and a fine study of Milton, presented by Anthony Trollope. Although the revival of Gothic architecture is just now a national sentiment, and is in keeping with the exigencies of our climate, one finds, in the best features of Grecian and Italian Art, much that is noble and elevating even under our grey and unsympathetic skies. The design of the Athenæum is a help to the dignity and repose which is characteristic not only of the exterior, but of the rooms in the house itself. If the members have collected a library that is said to be the best of its kind in London, the architect and decorator, repeating classic models, have enshrined the volumes with characteristic taste. It brings the admirer of all this sadly down to the realism of the outer street when one is told that a member, desirous to refer to the Fathers on a theological point, asked one of the officials if "Justin Martyr" was in the library, and was answered, "I don't think he's a member, sir, but I will refer to the list." [27-29]


Tait, Hugh, and Richard Walker with contributions by Sarah Dodgson, Ian Jenkins, and Ralph Pinder-Wilson. The Athenæum Collection. London: The Athenæum, 2000. [This volume may be ordered from the Librarian, The Athenæum, Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5 ER.]

Wurman, Richard Saul. London Access. 3rd edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Last modified 29 February 2012