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The architect’s rendering of the Royal Academy’s north-facing entrance in Burlington Gardens, 2018 (© Hayes Davidson)

More or less at the same time that the Royal Academy was converting the old Burlington House for its own use with a grand set of exhibition galleries at the back, designed by the then Treasurer, Sydney Smirke, the government decided to build a headquarters for the University of London in the garden at the back of Burlington House. They used James Pennethorne as their architect. He was at the end of a long career in government service, working originally for his adopted father, John Nash, on the design of villas in Park Village West; appointed joint Surveyor and Architect of the Office of Works in 1840; responsible in the 1840s for the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly and the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, as well as the layout of New Oxford Street and Commercial Street in the east end; and, in the 1850s, for changes to Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery.

Pennethorne submitted his first design in March 1866, which was for quite a plain classical building, with a grandly monumental central staircase, flanked by semi-independent flanking wings — on the east side, by what was called a “Hall for Public Meetings” and, on the west, by a “Hall for Examinations”. However, this was the period of the “Battle of the Styles” and the University’s Registrar, Dr Carpenter, recommended that he submit an alternative design in gothic, while the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor were away on holiday. Pennethorne obediently did what he was asked to do in an elaborate form of French gothic, with pinnacles and a mansard roof and, in February 1867, he was instructed to begin work on this design. However, when it became known to the University’s Senate that the design had been changed without their approval, they objected and asked that the design be done in sympathy with Burlington House. After questions had been asked in the House of Commons by the well-known archaeologist, Austen Layard, it was decided that both a classical design and a gothic design should be exhibited for inspection in the House of Commons Library. On May 31, 1867, funds were granted for construction of the building, only provided that it was not gothic. So, Pennethorne went back to the drawing board and produced a design for the current building, which is in his preferred style of monumental classicism, enriched with a great deal of appropriate academic statuary, including ancient philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes and Justinian amongst the ancients, and Leibnitz, Linnaeus, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham amongst the moderns.

For nearly 150 years, these two neoclassical buildings had their own lives, back to back, with no interconnection between them. The University of London moved out of Burlington Gardens in 1900. It was then briefly the headquarters for the National Antarctic Expedition and, in 1902, became the headquarters of the Civil Service Commission. Anyone who wanted to take the examination for entry into the Civil Service — the Home or Colonial Office or the Indian Civil Service — would have taken their exams in this building. In 1928, the British Academy and its then Secretary, Sir Israel Gollancz, were accommodated in a heavily classical, walnut-panelled room, designed by Arnold Mitchell and constructed on the ground floor in space which had previously been occupied by the Lecture Theatre. In 1968, the Civil Service Commission was abolished and the headquarters of the Civil Service moved out to Basingstoke. Its headquarters was leased to the British Museum in 1970 as the so-called Museum of Mankind and began a programme of adventurous exhibitions mounted by its Department of Ethnography, beginning with Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico and Divine Kingship in Africa, both of which opened on December 15, 1970; Pre-Columbian art from El Salvador in spring 1971; Eskimo art and Eskimo Sculpture in 1972; and including many memorable exhibitions, like Eduardo Paolozzi’s Lost Magic Kingdoms which ran from November 1985 to October 1987 and The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico which ran from November 1991 to November 1993.
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