Natural History Museum

Waterhouse's design

Perspective of the Natural History Museum by Alfred Waterhouse

Perspective of the Natural History Museum, 1876
Watercolour and pen
Artist: Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905)
Copyright: V&A images. Museum number: D.1889-1908


This beautiful watercolour of 1876 shows Waterhouse's final design except for a few changes to the entrance and central gable. The 750 feet long front, with twin central towers and finished by pavilions is shown in detail along with the side wings which were never built.

After the change in government and subsequent cut in budget in 1870 Waterhouse revised his design to be built in two stages: firstly the main front along Cromwell Road; secondly, the side wings and rear, funding for which was never found.

A unique Romanesque style

Waterhouse bucked the current trend of adopting the Gothic style, and instead opted for his own version of German Romanesque. He explained his choice due to it suiting a museum, giving it order, grandeur and simplicity, appropriate qualities for a natural history collection. It also meant he could keep Fowke's round-arched windows.

Key features of Waterhouse's Romanesque include:

  • Twin towers, possible models: Minster of St. Martin, Bonn, which Waterhouse visited and sketched in 1857; Liebfrauen Kirche, Andernach. Note that due to demands from the London Fire Office, Waterhouse designed very large towers in order to contain water tanks.
  • Round arches including windows and entrance
  • Double entrance portal – Romanesque in feel but no exact models
  • Naturalistic decoration using plant and animal motifs

The decorated façade

The Cromwell Road façade, which is reminiscent of both a cathedral front and a medieval market hall, is decorated according to the wishes of the museum's director, Richard Owen. Owen wanted the purpose of the museum conveyed on the exterior: the west or zoological side is decorated with living species; the east geological side with extinct species. Owen and Waterhouse were possibly influenced in their choice of decoration by the University Museum, Oxford (1855-59), by Deane & Woodward, which Waterhouse visited in 1858.

Innovative use of materials

All of the decoration and the whole façade facing are carried out in terracotta. Waterhouse chose this relatively new material since it could mass produce cheap, durable and washable ornament.