[ocr errors][ocr errors]

have the divergences of opinion been greater, or the expressions of dissatisfaction with the plans—or with the want of plan—louder or more general.

Yet there is no doubt (amongst those, at least, who have had occasion to examine the subject closely) that the architects of the new British Museum—first Sir Robert SMIRKE, and then Mr. Sydney SMIRKE—have been conspicuous for professional ability. Nor is there any doubt, anywhere, that the Trustees of the Museum have bestowed diligent attention on the plans submitted to them. They have been most anxious to discharge that part of their duty to the Public with the same faithfulness which, on the whole, has characterised their general fulfilment of the trust committed to them. Why, it is natural to ask, has their success been so unequal?

Without presuming upon the possession of competence to answer the question with fulness, there is no undue confidence in offering a partial reply. Part of their failure to satisfy the public expectations has arisen from a laches in Parliament itself. At the critical time when the character of the new buildings had practically to be decided, parsimoniousness led, not only to construction piecemeal, but to the piecemeal preparation of the designs themselves. Temporary makeshifts took the place of foreseeing plans. And what may have sounded like economy in 1830 has, in its necessary results, proved to be very much like waste, long before 1870.

Had a comprehensive scheme of reconstruction been looked fully in the face when, forty years ago, the new buildings began to be erected, three fourths at most of the money which has been actually expended would have sufficed for the erection of a Museum, far more satisfactory in its architectural character, and affording at least one

fourth more of accommodation for the National Collections. The British Museum buildings have afforded a salient instance of the truth of BURKE’s words : ‘ Great expense may be an essential part in true economy. Mere parsimony is not economy.’ But, in this instance, the fault is plainly in Parliament, not in the Trustees of the establishment which has suffered.

The one happy exception to the general unsatisfactoriness of the new buildings—as regards, not merely architectural beauty, but fitness of plan, sufficiency of light, and adaptedness t0 purpose—is seen in the new Reading-Room. And the new Reading-Room is, virtually, the production of an amateur architect. The chief merits of its design belong, indubitably, to Sir Antonio PANIZZI. The story of that part of the new building is worth the telling.

That some good result should be eventually derived from the large space of ground within the inner quadrangle had been many times suggested. The suggestion offered, in 1837, by Mr. Thomas WATTS was thus expressed in his letter to the Editor of the Mechanics’ 111ayazine:—

Mr. WATTS began by criticising, somewhat incisively, the architectural skill which had constructed a vast quadrangle without providing it even with the means of a free circulation of air. He pinned Sir Robert SMIRKE on the horns of a dilemma. If, he argued,the architect looked to a sanitary result, he had, in fact, provided a well of malaria. If he contemplated a display of art, he had, by consenting to the abolition of his northern portico, spoiled and destroyed all architectural effect. ‘ The space,’ he proceeded to say, which has thus been wasted, ‘ would have afforded accommodation for {lie w/zole Library, much superior to what is now proposed to afford it. A Reading-Room of ample dimensions might have stood in the centre, and

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][merged small]

been surrounded, on all four sides, with galleries for the books.’ Afterwards, when adverting to the great expense which had been incurred upon the facades of the quadrangle, he went on to say: ‘ It might now seem barbarous to propose the filling up of the square—as ought originally to have been done. Perhaps the best plan would be to design another range of building entirely [new ?], enclosing the present building on the eastern and northern sides as the Elgin and other galleries do on the western. To do this, it would be necessary to purchase and pull down one side of two streets,—Montagu Street and Montagu Place.’

As I have intimated already, this alternative project was unconsciously reproduced, by the present writer, ten years later, without any idea that it had been anticipated. But neither to the mind of the writer of 1837, nor to that of the writer of 1847,'did the grand feature of construction which, within another decade, has given to London a splendid building as well as a most admirable ReadingRoum, present itself. The substantial merit, both of originally suggesting, and of (in the main) eventually realising the actual building of 1857, belongs to Antonio PANIZZI.

As to the claims on that score advanced by Mr. HOSKING, formerly Professor of Architecture at King’s College, they apply to a plan wholly different from the plan which was carried into execution.

Mr. Hosxme’s scheme was drawn up, for private circulation, in February, 1848 (thirteen months after the writing of my own pamphlet entitled Public Lilrarica in London and in Paris, and more than six months after its circulation in print), when it was first submitted to Lord ELLESMERE’S Commission of Inquiry. It was first published (in The Builder) in June, 1850. His object was to pro

vide a grand central hall for the Department of Antiqnities.

Then Mr. Hosxme called public attention to his design of ISIS—in a pamphlet entitled Some Remar/rs 2111022 the recent Addition of a ,Reaa’z'ny-Room to tire Britta/r Zlfuseum -—Mr. Sydney SMIRKE wrote to him thus :—‘ I recollect seeing your plans at a meeting of the Trustees, . . . shortly after you sent them [to Lord ELLEsnERE]. When, long subsequently, Mr. PANIZZI showed me his sketch for a plan of a new Reading-Room, I confess it did not remind me of yours, the purposes of the two plans and the treatment and construction were so different .’* Whilst to Mr. SMIRKE himself belongs the merit of practical execution, that of design belongs no less unquestionably to PANIZZI.

[ocr errors]

* If the question of mere hints and analogies in construction were to be followed out to its issues, the result, I feel assured, would in no degree tend to strengthen the contention of Mr. Hosking‘s pamphlet. Something like a. first gem of the mere ground-plan of the new ReadingRoom may, perhaps, be found in M. Benjamin Delessert’s Projet d’une Bibliothequc circa-Zaire, printed, at Paris, as far back as the year 1835, when the question of reconstructing the then ‘Royal,’ now ‘ Imperial Library,’ was under discussion in the French Chambers. ‘ I propose,’ says Delessert, ‘to place the officers and the readers in the centre of a vast rotunda, whence branch ofi’ eight principal galleries, the

walls of which form diverging radii. . . and have book-cases on both sides,’ &c. His plan may be thus shown, in small. The differences, it

will be seen, between this sketch and Mr. Panizzi’s sketch of ISM, are
greater than are the resemblances.

Smirke to

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

Mr. PANIZZI himself preferred, at first, the plan of extending the building on the eastern and northern sides. His suggestions had the approval of the Commissioners of 1850. But the Government was slow to give power to the Trustees to carry out the plan of their officer and the recommendation of the Commissioners of Inquiry, by proposing the needfnl vote in a Committee of Supply. Plan and Report alike lay dormant from the year 1 850 to 1854. It was then that, as a last resort, and as a measure of economy, by avoiding all present necessity to buy more ground of the Duke of Banroao, Mr. PANIZZI recommended the Trustees to build within the quadrangle, and drew a sketch-plan, on which their architect reported favourably. Sixty-one thousand pounds, by way of a first instalment, was voted on the third of July, 1854. The present noble structure was completed within three years from that day, and its total cost—including the extensive series of book-galleries and rooms of various kinds, subserving almost innumerable purposes—amounted in round numbers to a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. It was thus only a little more than the cost of the King’s Library, which accommodates eighty thousand volumes of books and a Collection of Birds. The new Reading-Room and its appendages can be made to accommodate, in addition to its three hundred and more of readers, some million, or near it, of volumes, without impediment to their fullest accessibility.

To describe by words a room which, in 1870, has become more or less familiar, I suppose, to hundreds of thousands of Britons, and to a good many thousands of foreigners, would now be superfluous. But it will not be without advantage, perhaps, to show its character and appearance with the simple brevity of woodcuts.

The following illustrative block-plan shows the general

« ElőzőTovább »