Natural History Museum


Details of pilasters in south galleries on ground floor

Details of pilasters in south galleries on ground floor (now dinosaur gallery)
Pencil and grey and buff washes
Artist: Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905)
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections 

The interior of the Natural History Museum is as decorative as the exterior. The iron columns of the galleries are covered in terracotta decoration to complement the exhibits. This washable, durable medium was well-suited to decorating such a vast space as one plaster moulding could produce about 50 castings. Here the pilasters in the south galleries show low-relief fishes below, and fully moulded capitals with lions and deer above.

Continental influences on the design

The museum director, Richard Owen advised the designer, Waterhouse, with regards to the specimens represented. Waterhouse was also helped in this task by his previous studies of Romanesque architecture. In his early years he went almost every year to the Continent to sketch architecture. In the 1860s he spent time travelling down the Rhine in southern Germany, visiting Speyer, Bacherach and Trier, recording architectural details such as capitals decorated with animals.

Waterhouse’s drawings for the museum

Waterhouse designed and drew each moulding for the museum, had it checked by Owen, then forwarded the drawings to the French sculptor Dujardin (fl. 1866-78) of Farmer & Brindley for modelling. It was then sent to Tamworth in Staffordshire for casting.

For such a large and complex site as the museum hundreds of drawings were required. Waterhouse had a hand in most documents, but 24 other draughtsmen are known to have worked on the design between 1870 and 1876. Waterhouse assigned different aspects to his colleagues to do, quite probably including the tedious task of marking the brick scale on the left-hand edge of each drawing.

In addition to the RIBA's vast Waterhouse collection, the Natural History Museum's own library holds more than 130 drawings for the mouldings. These very fine beautiful sketches give incredible detail and demonstrate Waterhouse's talents and dedication both as an architect and artist.