The British Academy's first home at 6 Burlington Gardens

Between 1867 and 1870, new headquarters for the University of London, designed by Sir James Pennethorne, were built at 6 Burlington Gardens, with a showpiece Lecture Theatre in the east wing – as illustrated in these contemporary prints.

Façade of Burlington Gardens print

Burlington Gardens Lecture Theatre print

In 1902, the Civil Service Commission took over the use of the building. When the British Academy was established by Royal Charter in that same year, it had no home of its own, so when it started to organise public lectures and other events, it held these in the Lecture Theatre at Burlington Gardens – as illustrated by this invitation from 1908.

Burlington Gardens Milton invitation

In 1927 the British Academy finally received the good news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, that ‘in recognition of the position of the British Academy and its services to the nation the Government have decided to assign it free quarters’ at 6 Burlington Gardens. The Academy’s first home was to be created through a remodelling of space in the east wing; this would include dividing the lofty Lecture Theatre into two floors, with the Academy’s rooms being predominantly in the lower part. The plan of the ‘New premises at Burlington Gardens for the British Academy’ is illustrated below. At the top left is the Council Room, with next to it a ‘Secretariat’ office, and a ‘Book Room’ for stock of the Academy’s publications. The lower two-thirds of the Plan show two Lecture Rooms, one smaller, one larger, separated by a folding partition that could be opened up to create a single bigger meeting space.

Burlington Gardens floor plan

The reconstruction work – overseen by the architect Mr Arnold Mitchell, and paid for by Sir Charles Wakefield (who had already demonstrated his generosity as a benefactor to the Academy) – was completed in time for the rooms to be opened in July 1928. An article in the Observer, published ahead of the opening, described the Council Room as ‘a particularly handsome apartment, panelled to the ceiling with walnut. The centre of the ceiling is domed and elaborately ornamented, and has screened lighting and ventilation.’ The panelling and the domed ceiling can be seen in these modern photographs of the room (courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts).

Burlington Gardens Council Room

At the entrance to the Council Room, the name sign above the doorway and the door handles were decorated with ancient Egyptian stylings.

Burlington Gardens Doorway

On the floor above there was space for a library. But, judging that London did not need yet another ‘library on a large scale’, the Academy decided to limit its ambitions to keeping a collection mainly of its own publications and those that had arisen through its funding, and agreed to share the upper floor space with the Bibliographical Society.

Burlington Gardens dinner party invitation

The British Academy’s first home was formally opened on 24 July 1928. The photograph below, published in The Times, captured the occasion. Standing from left to right in the Council Room, are: Dr J.W. Mackail (future President 1932-36); Sir Frederic Kenyon (past President 1917-21, and future Secretary 1930-49); Sir Charles Wakefield (benefactor); Arnold Mitchell (architect); the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Lord Mayor of London; Lord Balfour (President 1921-28); H.A.L. Fisher (future President 1928-32); Sir Israel Gollancz (Secretary 1902-30). Above the fireplace is the portrait of Balfour, by Sir William Orpen, donated by Wakefield.

Burlington Gardens opening party

Burlington Gardens dinner party menu

The ceremony was followed by a lunch at the Princes Hotel, Piccadilly (seating plan). The lunch, attended by HRH the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), also celebrated Lord Balfour’s 80th birthday. As reported in The Times, the Prince said: ‘Although this luncheon follows the notable ceremony of giving a permanent home to the British Academy, its atmosphere is not oppressively academic. For the moment we have all laid aside whatever formal robes we may be entitled to wear, and the thought in our minds can only be expressed, not in any dead language, but in the plainest of live English. Our real purpose is the simple one of wishing very many happy returns of his birthday to one who is honoured and loved by all who speak that tongue all the world over.’

On 1 May 1929, a tablet to record Wakefield’s generosity was unveiled in the large Lecture Room.

Burlington Gardens plaque

Related content:

Winston Churchill, Charles Wakefield, and the British Academy

This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy

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