Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Terracotta and the
London Natural History Museum

Donna Webb researched the interesting use
of terracotta in the design of this building
.

THE LONDON NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, completed in 1881, was the first and is still the largest public building in England to be completely faced in terracotta. The use of terracotta created unique opportunities and challenges that contributed to the design of the building. First, let us look at the qualities of the material itself. James Doulton described terracotta as ware used in the construction of buildings which is more or less ornamental and of a higher class than ordinary bricks, demanding more care in the choice and manipulation of the clay and much harder firing and being, consequently, more durable and better fitted for moulded and modelled work” The plasticity of the clay from which terracotta was formed made it uniquely useful for modelling, story telling, educating and creating buildings with form that could express building function.

Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), the architect of the Natural History Museum was uniquely suited to orchestrate the complex possibilities of terracotta. He was renowned for his thoroughness and ability to organise. These qualities made a project like the Natural History Museum possible. In the late 19th century some standard architectural terracotta forms were stocked by material dealers. These included architraves, balusters, bases of columns and pilasters, belt courses, capitals, chimney-tops, columns, copings, cornices, dormers, finials, friezes, ventilators, mouldings, panels, pediments, string courses, tiles, window heads, window mullions and tracery, brackets, corbels and gargoyles. Waterhouse used many of these standard forms. In addition Waterhouse designed more than 300 sculptures and reliefs to cover the surface of the Natural History Museum. These were cast in terracotta by Gibbs and Canning, his terracotta manufacturers. The sculptural relief was made in structural block forms which were laid in along with the brick. Plain areas on the building were made of tiles adhered to the surface of the load-bearing brick wall. By arranging the elements in different configurations he achieved a rich variation of surface. The rhythmic placing of stockforms plus the sculptures made especially for the museum created a building that had much in common with a hand-hewn stone building and was an integral part of Waterhouse’s aesthetic. John Ruskin said, “For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its age, ….; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, until it has been encrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, until its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess, of language and life.”

Terracotta had some qualities that made it especially able to speak with the authority of age. “In faithfully made and vitrified terracotta we have the great and only lasting triumph of man over natural productions; for timber will rot, stone, even granite, will disintegrate, iron will oxidise – these and all other materials will succumb to the action of fire, and other destroying influences of the elements; but properly made and thoroughly burned terracotta will pass through the centuries and be the last to yield to those influences to which all natural productions must give way, the material being not only absolutely fireproof but also in all architectural employments practically time-proof and indestructible.”

Satisfactory performance of terracotta depends upon its having been well made, structurally sound and properly impervious to water. In addition it must have adequate support, proper anchorage or bonding and protection from water infiltration. Loss has occurred at the Natural History Museum in several ways. The building sustained 40 hits by bombs in WWII. The porter’s lodge destroyed at that time has not been remade. Improper cleaning and natural settling of the building has damaged some other areas of the terracotta and two large terracotta animals from the parapet have been remade. Extremely smoky air during the 19th century made the ease of cleaning terracotta appealing though the outside of building was not cleaned until l975. Let’s look at the words of a contemporary critic, “The material (terracotta) is unsuited to the Italian or French Renaissance (style), which requires in almost all its forms the utmost precision of line and finish. The round-arched style of the 12th century (German Romanesque style used in the Natural History Museum) cannot nowdays be reproduced in all its original charm and picturesqueness in stone. Much of its attractiveness lies in the naïveté with which the artificers of old varied its spacing and details, and disregarded a mathematical accuracy in the recurring elements of their designs. It would be an unbearable affectation to reproduce with our aids and appliances for the most perfect mechanical finish, the shortcomings of the less expert Norman masons. And the details of their style, if too accurately wrought, have a hard unsympathetic cast-iron look which is quite foreign to the old work. But the unequal shrinkage and firing inseparable from terracotta supplies exactly the required quality, and imparts to the design a certain artistic sketchiness.”

One of the criticisms levelled at classic architecture during the 19th century was that it did not make the function of individual buildings clear. A classical building looked much the same whether it was a bank, library or church. Victorian architects such as Waterhouse wanted to express the function of the building through architectural forms. Many believed that historical styles such as Gothic and Romanesque were more flexible in this regard. Deciding the function of the proposed Natural History Museum was, of course, the job of the scientists there who ranged from paleontologists to botanists and zoologists. Waterhouse collaborated with the director of the museum, Richard Owen. Owen was enthusiastic about the project and may even have suggested using plant and animal forms as architectural ornamentation. Waterhouse drew the illustrations for the sculpture from specimens supplied by Sir Richard Owen and some of the other scientists. He was not able, however, to faithfully represent the disparate views of all the scientists in his museum and this was to become an issue when the building did not fully reflect their interests. It is not surprising that scientists would be frustrated at the lack of accuracy. Scientific accuracy was not a strong point of Waterhouse’s scheme. Artists often use fact or observation as a starting point. Many important animal groups are not represented, some plant forms are represented as decorative forms rather than growing plants and many large forms such as whales and elephants are not included. Waterhouse’s motifs do not summarise the plant and animal world known at the time. He left out herpetology, entomology and ichthyology.

Waterhouse drew and painted throughout his life and those practices benefited his work as an architect. Holidays would find him recording architectural forms and details. He was drawn to the gothic style which provided more opportunity for asymmetry, theatricality and narrative than the rigid, symmetrical and plain classical forms. The sculptor, Dujardin, worked for the terracotta manufacturers, Farmer and Brindley. He received drawings from Waterhouse beginning in about 1875 in small groups sent to the Farmer and Brindley premises on the Westminster Bridge Road, London. From each drawing he sculpted a clay model. One of the first drawings he received was for the eight blocks of the voussoirs of the arches in the main hall of the Museum with five different designs for birds and three including the keystone with foliage only. The foliage was based on a Romanesque detail that Waterhouse sketched in Arles in 1870.

The extent to which Waterhouse used other models for his drawings is not clear. According to the history of the building process written for the museum itself, the sources of the images were specimens provided by the scientists. However it seems possible that another source of inspiration could have been the London Zoo. The first scientific zoological gardens in the modern world, the zoo was founded in 1828. Generations of artists have visited there to study animals from life, an example being the bird-painter Henry Stacy Marks, a friend of John Ruskin, who was just a year younger than Waterhouse and most likely knew him. Waterhouse’s drawings clearly communicated his parameters for the forms of architectural ornament he favoured. Precedent for using natural forms as ornament on pillars, capitals, corbels and panels came from French Gothic cathedrals. Gothic architecture was already the style of the forward thinking in the mid 19th century. It offered at least the illusion of hand work in the tradition of the gothic cathedral stone carvers. Waterhouse’s drawings also served a public-relations function. They were regularly printed in The Builder. Ninety seven were reproduced during the years of construction. News stories, critiques and human interest stories included with the images educated readers about design choices. Waterhouse’s drawings were vulnerable and fragile objects. Fewer than half of the original drawings for the unique Natural History Museum terracotta survive. Considering the practical use and the fact that the drawings were undoubtedly consulted in the studio where clay and water were also being used it is remarkable that so many survive and that they are in such good condition. Today working drawings leaving the safety of a design studio would be copies. In the 1870s no copying process was readily available. Though Waterhouse did make an effort to raise a budget for making lithographs of some of his drawings for this project he was not successful. Tracing was evidently not a practice in this case because of the importance of the pencil shading in the depiction of volume. John Ruskin affirmed the meaning of labour in art, including architecture. His theory that maintaining the dignity of the artisan was central to moral architecture may have influenced Waterhouse’s relationship with the sculptor, Dujardin. Waterhouse allowed Dujardin to model freely from his drawings. More than 300 sculptures were made from drawings in the years from 1875 through 1878. Most of these were made from drawings of one view of the form and with no written directions as to how to accommodate for shrinkage. Presumably Dujardin was skilful enough to accomplish this largely on his own using the site drawings. His partnership with Dujardin allowed Waterhouse to successfully transform his two dimensional drawings into both relief and fully three dimensional forms without sacrificing his architectural vision. Little is known about Dujardin. The Builder published an article in 1878 saying that the decorative details were modelled by M. Dujardin for the Natural History Museum. In the next issue, Farmer and Brindley replied to the story by saying that credit should have been given to Messrs. Farmer and Brindley, their foreman being Mr. Dujardin. In the next issue J. R. (John Ruskin?) asked, “Who did model these charming details if Mr. Dujardin did not”, to which we know of no reply. Waterhouse biographer, Colin Cunningham proposed that Dujardin may have been a young sculptor who exhibited his work in London. He also suggested that Waterhouse could have met Dujardin in Paris and asked him to come to London.

A search of the 1871 and ’81 census suggests another possibility. Born in 1856 Oscar Dujardin was living in London in 1871. By 1881 he was married and living with his wife on 12 Barclay St, St Pancreas. Another couple Hubert Dujardin estimated birthday 1814 and Lydia born about 1843 were living at 146 Kings Cross Rd, St James Clerkenwell. By the 1891 census all of these Dujardins were gone. Ship manifest records from 1851-91 show an Oscar Dujardin settling in Arkansas and another in California.

Oscar Dujardin would have been only 19 years old in 1875 when Waterhouse began making his drawings for the sculpture. Could this young man have made the models? We know that sculptors were beginning to be trained in art schools. “The proponents of design reform gave ceramics an elevated status. Clay working was not only a long-established and seemingly ubiquitous industry, it involved, ideally, a combination of science and art, and of utility with a simple beauty.”

Such principles were disseminated by the art schools established from the 1840s, which came to follow a curriculum defined and controlled from the South Kensington department of Science and Art. Such schools as Lambeth, Burslem, Sheffield and Coalbrookdale paid close attention to clay modelling because of their ties with ceramic firms or with companies which had to create three-dimensional designs for execution in other materials such as iron, steel or bronze.”

Little attention was paid to the sculptor, Dujardin. Except for his work on the Natural History Museum nothing is known about him today. Though it appears that Waterhouse paid him respect by turning over an important element of the process to him there is no doubt about where credit was meant to be given. It is possible that Dujardin came from the brick making end of the process. Brick makers were of low status. If Dujardin had received some academic training at one of the art schools, his status would have been considerably higher. The Royal College of Art founded in 1837 was at the pinnacle of art and design education in Britain.

In this artistic atmosphere pottery was part of the sculpture school, with education emphasising modelling. This usually involved copying from the great examples of the past (classical Greece?) taken from the college’s study collection, later to develop into the Victoria and Albert Museum. Waterhouse’s drawings and the sculpture that resulted from them do not seem to have been taken from classical models. Though there are elements of realism in the proportion and attention to detail there are Middle Eastern or Sassanian heraldic motifs in the manes, teeth and foliage that make the animals and plants seem decorative. Finally, classical sculpture is distinguished by an understanding of the structure of lips, teeth and jaws, which archaic work does not employ. In almost every case from lion’s snarl, to bird’s beak to rabbit’s muzzle, the modelling is archaic.

“London, and most of the great cities of England, being situated in alluvial valleys and plains, are built of bricks made from the clay beneath and around them.” There were terracotta manufactures that specialised in large classical forms of smooth configuration. Waterhouse chose instead Messrs. Gibbs and Canning who owned the Glascote Works of Gibbs and Canning in Tamworth, Staffordshire. They were chosen by Waterhouse to do the terracotta for more than 100 of his architectural commissions. In 1865 Gibbs and Canning was a sanitary-pipe factory on the Midlands coalfield. Based on their experience with the clay there, Gibbs and Canning maintained “that terracotta can be made of simple fireclays. That the pieces should be small. That the original models should be good, of low relief and that the work should be burned as it leaves the mould without any finish or undercutting by hand; that slight warping and variations of shade and colour is artistic rather than otherwise”. Though many model makers were working in plaster by the turn of the century there is no reason to believe that would have been so for Waterhouse’s special decorative elements. Dujardin’s clay models could have been cast directly in plaster moulds. Though plaster moulds will wear out after 50 or 60 uses, none of the animal or plant images used for the Natural History Museum would have needed to be reproduced that often. Gibbs and Canning’s attitude toward process allowed the manufacturing process to be more expressive.

The building trade was one of the largest industries in Britain in the 1860s and ’70s, employing 10 per cent of the labour force. Bricks were made as near as possible to the site. Since most Victorian builders did not like to work fired terracotta with a hammer and chisel the only way to ensure that all blocks in a contract had been made to dimension was to fabricate the façade at the works, a practice carried out by Gibbs and Canning at Tamworth. This was an open site with space for buildings, storage and clay banks. Offices with terracotta decoration fronted sheds were extended or relinquished for other uses as boost to the building trades. After 1860 the price of terracotta was about the same as the cheapest building stone.

The Natural History Museum and its prolific architect, Alfred Waterhouse, received much deserved attention since the end of the 19th century. However, most of that attention has come in the form of architectural histories or histories of Victorian culture. Waterhouse’s buildings did not affect architectural practice after WWI. Victorian excesses were seen as tiresome and old fashioned. Artists began to turn inward and embraced abstraction. They showed little sympathy with the stiff moralising tone of the Natural History Museum. Architects abandoned narrative and references to past styles to embrace the clean lines of modernism.

Meanwhile the Natural History Museum continues to grow. Attendance grew from 1,601,000 in 2000/01 to 3,148,000 in 2003/04. The number of scientists undertaking research there grew to 300 in 2004. Hundreds of graduate students and visiting scholars come from around the world.25 The collections have reached staggering proportions. The Natural History Museum’s vast collections comprise more than 70 million specimens from across the natural world. The Darwin centre, in the process of being built around the old Natural History Museum will both protect those collections and make them accessible to “collectors of birds, bird eggs, shells and leaves”. The collection and the old Waterhouse building will be contained in a glass cocoon; visible and protected. Waterhouse’s building has been transformed by time. “More lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it…” Indeed, the building has helped to preserve the natural objects of the world.


Donna Webb is an artist and a professor at the Myers School of Art, University of Akron. She earned a postgraduate cerificate in history of ceramics from Staffordshire University in 2005.

Ceramics Art & Perception — Cermaics Technical
Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
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