Natural History Museum

Fowke's design

Design for the Natural History Museum

Detail of a design for the Natural History Museum in an engraving from The Builder, 28 May 1864
Designer: Francis Fowke (1823-1865)
Artist: Benjamin Sly
Copyright: RIBA Library Photographs Collection 

In 1864 a competition was held for a building to house the new museum, and of the 33 entries submitted, most were Classical in style. Shown here is the winning entry by the engineer Captain Francis Fowke; this was what the Natural History Museum was going to look like, before the architect Alfred Waterhouse was employed on the project.

Fowke was a surprise winner. Following his work at the South Kensington Museum, Fowke designed the 1862 International Exhibition building, which sat on the ground now intended for the Natural History Museum. This had been criticised in the press as 'one of the ugliest buildings….ever raised in this country'. (1)

Fowke's design was very much a Victorian version of early Italian Renaissance in keeping with his work at the South Kensington Museum. The dome was inspired by Bramante’s unexecuted design for St. Peter's Rome, and it in turn could be seen as later inspiring Harrods on the Brompton Road.

Criticism of Fowke’s design

Fowke's design provoked further controversy as the runner-up, architect Robert Kerr, complained that Fowke had failed to follow the competition conditions. It also emerged that although the British Museum authorities preferred Kerr's design, the commissioners chose Fowke.

Ugly correspondence followed both in the press and in private, which is well documented in the RIBA Drawings and Archives Collections. Henry Cole, champion of the South Kensington area, defended Fowke, and the competition result remained unchanged.

Fowke died suddenly in December 1865. Due to the controversy with Kerr the project could not fall to him as runner-up. In February 1866 William Cowper, the minister in charge of public buildings, appointed the relatively unknown but rising star from Manchester, Alfred Waterhouse.


(1) Building News, volume 11, 1864, p.297