Organs and archaeology

THE EYES OF MOST VISITORS to Kensington Gore are attracted to the spectacular Royal Albert Hall and, opposite it, the monument to Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Immediately to the west of the Royal Albert Hall, there stands the comparatively less impressive twentieth century building housing the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), designed by H T Cadbury Brown and opened in 1962. Next to this geometric structure of concrete and glass and on its south side, there is an edifice whose appearance is a dramatic contrast to it. The walls of the RCA’s southern neighbour are covered with figurative illustrations, created in the ‘sgraffito’ technique.  Bands of ‘putti’ carrying musical instruments, scrolls of paper, or singing, appear to be scurrying across the walls of the building. Maybe this is not surprising because once this place housed The Royal College of Organists (‘RCO’).

Founded in 1864 by the organist Richard Limpus (1824-1875) to promote advanced organ playing, it received its Royal Charter in 1893. The building next to the present RCA and facing the Royal Albert Hall was designed by Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole (1843-1916) of the Royal Engineers, and the ‘sgraffiti’ decorating it was created by Francis Wallaston Moody (1824-1886).

Lieutenant Cole was a son of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), a civil servant who had an extremely important role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. His building, erected 1874-75, was originally constructed to house The National Training School for Music. It was paid for by Sir Henry Cole’s friend, music lover, and a fellow member of the Society of the Arts, the developer Charles James Freake (1818-1884), who lived in Cromwell Road (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/sir-c-j-freake).

The architect, Lieutenant Cole had little practical architectural experience as is revealed in “The Survey of London Vol.38” (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol38/pp217-219):

“Lieutenant Cole had returned in 1871 from India, where he had been Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, North-West Provinces, and his previous architectural work seems to have been confined mainly to publications on ancient Indian architecture and archaeology, and the preparation of casts for the Indian section of the South Kensington Museum, which he catalogued.”

Consequently:

“He was not left to design the school on his own. It was evolved in consultation with his father and was subjected to criticism by members of the Science and Art Department. A committee of management was appointed in July 1873 …”

Moody was a protégé of Sir Henry and a teacher at the National Art Training School, a forerunner of the RCA.

Between 1883 and 1896, the building was used by the newly founded Royal College of Music, which moved into its new premises south of the Royal Albert Hall in about 1896. The large variety of musical instruments that have been depicted on the building’s walls reflect the place’s first occupants.  Between 1896 and 1903, it stood empty. Then it was leased to the RCO for 100 years at a ‘peppercorn’ rent. When it was learnt that after expiry of the lease the rent would be increased considerably, the RCO moved into new accommodation in 1991. Currently, at least in 2018, it is owned by an entrepreneur, Robert Tchenguiz.

The Lieutenant, who designed the RCO building, became the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. His “First Report Of The Curator Of Ancient Monuments In India” was published in 1882 in Simla. This contains some of his views on dealing with archaeological items and sites. For example, he wrote:

“Experience has shown that the keenest investigators have not always had the greatest respect for the maintenance of monuments. Archaeological research has for its object the elucidation of history, and to an enthusiast the temptation to carry off a proof of an unravelled mystery is undoubtedly great. If there were no such things as photographs, casts, and other means of reproducing archaeological evidence, the removal of original stone records might perhaps be justified …”,

and, regarding the now controversial British possession of some famous sculptures in the British Museum:

“Sometimes, indeed, the removal of ancient remains is necessary for safe custody; and in the case of a foreign country, we are not responsible for the preservation in situ of important buildings. We are not answerable for keeping Grecian marbles in Greece; neither were we concerned for the rights of Egypt when Cleopatra’s Needle left Alexandria for the Thames embankment.”

However, regarding India, the Lieutenant wrote:

“In the case, however, of India—a country which is a British possession—the arguments are different. We are, I submit, responsible for Indian monuments, and that they are preserved in situ, when possible. Moreover, as Mr. Eergusson remarks, Indian sculpture is so essentially a part of the architecture with which it is bound, that it is impossible to appreciate it properly without being able to realise correctly the position for which it was originally designed …”

In order to satisfy the needs of museums in Europe, the lieutenant suggested that perfect replicas of artefacts can be made as is well demonstrated by the superb life-like plaster casts that can be seen in the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were opened in 1873 and established by Sir Henry Cole and the art collector John Charles Robinson (1824-1913). In general, Sir Henry’s son was against moving historical remains from British possessions. To make his point, he wrote:

“The removal, for instance, of Stonehenge to London would, I imagine, provoke considerable excitement in England, and be condemned by a majority in the scientific and artistic world.”

I am not sure that Lieutenant Cole’s views were shared by the American sculptor and collector of antiques George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who bought and whole cloisters and other architectural items in France and then had them shipped to New York City. There, they were reassembled and displayed in the superb Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Looking at the outside of the former RCO building, I could not detect anything that reflected its architect’s experiences in India except, if I stretch my imagination, for the upper storey windows that faintly recall the projecting windows that can be found on ‘havelis’, for example, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. But maybe I am letting my imagination run a little wild.

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