Natural History Museum

Delays and challenges

Sketch for proposed Natural History Museum on Thames Embankment

Sketch for proposed Natural History Museum on Thames Embankment, 1869
Artist: Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905)
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections 

Following the sudden death of Francis Fowke in 1865, Alfred Waterhouse was employed to complete Fowke's design. He was relatively unknown at the time, but with his design for the Manchester Assize Courts (1860-69) he had gained a reputation as a skilful planner of large and complex spaces.

Waterhouse had also proved himself amenable and capable of navigating through awkward commissions with various committees, useful talents for working in South Kensington.

A new site on the Embankment

A change in government in June 1866 left the Natural History Museum project in limbo. The idea was revived the following year, and Waterhouse began work redesigning Fowke's building. At first he followed Fowke's plan, including a lecture theatre surmounted by a large dome.

The Liberals returned to government in late 1868, bringing with them another new challenge to the project. The new First Commissioner, Henry Layard wanted the museum moved to the Embankment, to form part of a grand scheme of public buildings lining the Thames.

Waterhouse adapted his design to this new curved site, which was to stretch from Waterloo Bridge to Charing Cross. This sketch is one of two the RIBA holds, both showing very similar designs. Waterhouse designed a more grandiose structure for this more central, prominent location.

The return to South Kensington

By early 1870 the proposed site was found to be impossible and the project was returned to South Kensington under a new Conservative government. The new First Commissioner, A.S. Ayrton, promptly cut the budget for the project, forcing Waterhouse to revise his design again.