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