Terracotta relief sculpture in The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum in London houses one of the world’s great collections on the living world but it is also one the nation’s truly amazing buildings. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905), the Museum is like a Romanesque Cathedral to Science with a touch of Victorian railway station thrown in. Waterhouse’s design is not only striking in terms of style but also for its innovative use of materials, with the entire building being clad in fired terracotta tiles in an interesting buff and blue colour scheme. The extravagant, nature-inspired decoration was also produced in terracotta with huge numbers of sculptures and sculptural reliefs both inside and out.
I studied art at a time when Modernism was still very much the dominant force in architecture. I seem to remember that a building like the Natural History Museum was not so much attacked in discussions of good architecture (except by implication), it more just totally ignored; but I loved the building the first time I saw it and love it even more today.
These images are just a small selection of the reliefs and other decorations to be found in just the main hall of the building; the same decorative scheme is carried on throughout the building and can be the basis of an interesting museum trip all on their own.
Each piece of decoration was drawn by Waterhouse himself, then checked for scientific accuracy by Richard Owen, the museum’s director, then sent to a sculptor for modelling in clay before being cast and fired.
The great sculpture of Charles Darwin by Sir Joseph Boehm now commands the grand staircase.