The Natural History Museum's façade designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse, as it looks today

Architect Alfred Waterhouse and his iconic Natural History Museum building

Waterhouse created an extraordinary menagerie of terracotta designs worthy of a 'cathedral to nature'.

From the imposing gargoyles on the façade to the most delicate interior detail, every element of his design pays homage to the natural world.
 

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the natural history collections at the British Museum had well outgrown their lodgings.

New specimens and knowledge were flooding in from expeditions around the world, and galleries were already overcrowded. Something needed to be done.

Rough architectural plan drawn by Richard Owen entitled 'Idea of a Museum of Natural History', 1859. His initial concept included a circular lecture theatre and ample space for taxonomic displays.

A 'cathedral to nature'

Richard Owen, then superintendent of natural history collections, persuaded the trustees of the British Museum that a separate building was needed to accommodate their ever-growing catalogue of the natural world. 

Owen envisioned a 'cathedral to nature' to celebrate the richness and abundance of life on Earth and inspire scientists and the general public alike.

Following four years of campaigning, in 1863 he won approval to make this vision a reality.

Designs by Alfred Waterhouse for the tops of columns (called capitals) depicting species of owl and bat

Appointing an architect

A competition was held to attract the best designs for this new public building and in 1864 the coveted contract was awarded to Francis Fowke, who had also designed the Royal Albert Hall and parts of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

However, when Fowke died the following year, the relatively little-known architect Alfred Waterhouse was appointed to bring Owen's vision to life.

Lithograph of Alfred Waterhouse's design for the new Natural History Museum, including his ground floor plan. Under Owen's guidance Waterhouse's design retained the British Museum practice of separating the geology and palaeontology departments from the zoology and botany departments.

Who was Alfred Waterhouse?

Born in Liverpool and trained in Manchester, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect best known for his eclectic Victorian Gothic Revival Style. 

Waterhouse worked extensively on civic and educational buildings in Manchester and London.

For the Natural History Museum, Waterhouse combined Gothic Revival and twelfth-century Romanesque architecture with lavish decoration inspired by the natural world.

His highly innovative design used terracotta decoration for the entire building.

Photograph of Alfred Waterhouse in about 1900

Photographer unknown, via Wikimedia Commons. The original is in the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool.

Terracotta gargoyles on the Museum façade designed by Alfred Waterhouse

An original colour-wash illustration showing how Waterhouse intended the finished terracotta details to appear

Why terracotta?

In the 1850s, London was heavily polluted and architectural details were at risk of quickly disappearing under layers of black soot. Stone carving was also expensive, slow and labour intensive.

Waterhouse and his contemporaries working on 'Albertopolis', the then relatively new cultural precinct at South Kensington, believed terracotta to be a more hygienic option that would offer some resistance to the grime of Victorian London.

It also provided a comparatively quick and inexpensive way to manufacture decorations.

Waterhouse's design for a Palaeotherium gargoyle

A Palaeotherium gargoyle guarding the eastern side of the Museum façade

Waterhouse was strongly influenced by German Romanesque design and he made many trips to Germany where terracotta had already been widely used as a decorative feature of civic buildings.

The result is one of Britain's most striking and unusual examples of Romanesque architecture.

Photograph of the interior of the Museum (taken before Hope the blue whale was added). Waterhouse's design blended elements of classical Romanesque style such as rounded arches, groin vaults and ornate columns, with contemporary materials like iron and glass that made the most of natural light for Museum displays.

Designing from nature

Under Owen's close guidance, Waterhouse took inspiration for the building's embellishment directly from the natural history collections it would house.

Waterhouse's designs were based on the most up-to-date anatomical knowledge of species available at the time.

Owen supplied Waterhouse with many specimens and scientific illustrations from which to develop his designs, and Waterhouse had Museum professors check the scientific accuracy of his drawings.

Designs for wall tiles resembling fossilised fish

Design for a dodo decorative panel for use over a doorway in the southeastern first floor gallery

Once designs were approved, they were sent to architectural modelling company Farmer and Brindley. Waterhouse worked closely with a talented French sculptor called Dujardin whom he trusted to bring his designs to life.

Sketch by Alfred Waterhouse of architectural details for the main hall of the Museum

Photograph of finished terracotta sculptural details

Some of the sculptures look like they have mischief in mind

Others seem to have an inquisitive nature

Dujardin's models were then sent to the manufacturers Gibbs and Canning, a sanitary-pipe factory in Staffordshire, to be cast.

Elaborate figures such as gargoyles were cast only once, while simpler textures like foliage were cast multiple times and positioned organically throughout the building.

Intricate column and wall-tile designs

The designs for columns were inspired by the patterns found on fossilised tree trunks

Designs for interior decorations of the Museum, depicting animals among foliage

Perfect symmetry was not the aim, but rather a feeling of endless variety and abundance worthy of the natural world.

Gallery ceilings were also adorned with life, creating a vast botanical canopy representing important species and botanical knowledge gathered from all over the world.

At the centre of Waterhouse's design, 162 hand-painted and gilded panels make up the ceiling of the main hall.

The hand-painted illustrations depict plants of vital economic, medicinal and horticultural importance to England at the time.

Gilded ceiling panels depicting coffee, tobacco and cotton plants

Some panels also pay tribute to key people in the Museum's scientific history such as Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Joseph Banks and lesser-known figures including Graman Kwasi.

A sculpture of Adam (a figure from the Book of Genesis who was tasked with naming all animals) stood above the entrance, presiding over all the creatures on the Museum façade, until the Second World War

Foundations for scientific debate

Waterhouse worked hard to stay true to Richard Owen's firm ideas about the values a Museum and scientific institution should represent.

Owen was passionate about taxonomy - the grouping of animals - and his belief that all of nature was influenced by a divine ordering.

At a time when Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was just beginning to reveal the links between extinct and living species, Owen insisted that they be kept separate both in display and in the ornamentation of the Museum.

Extinct species were to decorate the east wing and living species the west.

Pterodactyl and scimitar-toothed lion, gargoyle designs for the eastern façade of the Museum

Gargoyles of living species such as wolves and lions look down from the west wing of the Museum

This decorative terracotta wall tile depicts a coelacanth - a deep-sea fish that was thought to be extinct at the time the Museum was designed. Waterhouse placed the coelacanth in an eastern gallery (now the Minerals gallery). Living examples of coelacanths have since been found and the species is considered a living fossil.

The Museum opened to visitors on 18 April 1881 and has continued to expand and evolve since then to reflect our ever-growing knowledge of the natural world.

More to explore

The Museum's Library and Archives hold more than 200 of Waterhouse's original designs. Explore them online or plan a visit to the Museum to experience this iconic architecture for yourself.

The Cromwell Road entrance