Sir Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust and Friend of the RA, uncovers the history of the Keeper’s House – a hidden architectural gem in the heart of Burlington House soon to be restored to its former glory.
In 1854 the British government did something extraordinary. It bought an aristocratic house in Piccadilly to honour the arts and sciences. The building had been owned by Lord Burlington and his descendents and designed and redesigned by the greatest names in architecture: James Gibbs, Colen Campbell, William Kent and John Carr of York. But buying was not the same as using. As usual with governments, twenty years followed of debate and indecision. The forecourt was demolished and premises built for a glittering array of ‘learned societies’, almost all of which remain to this day. But the house languished. One proposal was even to build a new National Gallery in the extensive gardens behind, William Wilkins RA’s building in Trafalgar Square being shared with the Royal Academy and too cramped. But in 1866 Sydney Smirke RA was commissioned to erect galleries for the Academy and studios for the RA Schools behind the old house, and, as a ‘tied cottage’, an extension on the east of the site for the Keeper.
Of all Smirke’s structures, the Keeper’s House is the most discreet. He built a grand attic storey on Burlington House, with Corinthian columns and niches with life-size statues of artists from Titian and Michelangelo to Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, the Academy’s founder. At ground level he created a rusticated portico, which has given successive Academicians headaches over access. The RA’s main exhibition galleries – the greatest in the world, according to a recent exhibitor, Anish Kapoor RA – were supplemented by a suite of Diploma Galleries (now replaced by the Sackler Wing of Galleries and the Academy’s Library that together swamped the old house, buried behind Smirke’s façade, and covered some three quarters of the complex.
The RA Schools building was created over part of Burlington House’s garden; its studios, life drawing room and groin vaulted corridor of sculptural casts form surely the most atmospheric of British art school settings. Smirke also designed the south façade to the courtyard, whose heaviness is a far cry from the Palladian sensitivity of the old Campbell front. Alongside these developments, the design of a dwelling for the Keeper of the RA Schools was a relatively small matter. Here the Keeper would serve as custodian of the building and oversee the work of the students.
Backing on to the rear of Albany next door, the Keeper’s House is structurally part of Burlington House. But it might seem like an architectural afterthought. The Keeper’s House is one storey lower than the main building and, insofar as it can be seen from the courtyard, is closer in appearance to the pre-Smirke home of the Burlington family, with hallmarks of the Palladian style favoured by Campbell. These include a rusticated ground storey with weighty voussoirs over the door, and the triangular pediment above and balustrade below a large south-facing window.
The exterior of the house remains much as it always has. Inside it could not be more different. One of the fundamental aims of the Keeper’s House project is to reveal more of its original interior, gradually lost to practical alteration. Even from the start its design was adaptive, as the new rooms created by Smirke – bedrooms, a bathroom and a studio – were joined to parts of the main building. The former chapel of Burlington’s mansion became the Keeper’s drawing room. In 1927, this was adopted as a library, as the Keeper had ceased to use the house as a home. Since 1986, the same space has become the Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends of the Royal Academy, essentially a part of the main block.
Former Keeper Maurice Cockrill RA in the Keeper's Studio at the top of the house. After numerous similar shifts throughout the building, the House has accreted several layers of construction and decoration, as servants’ quarters and bedrooms have become offices and storage rooms. It is particularly welcome that the alterations now in train by architects Long & Kentish as part of the Keeper’s House restoration will peel back humdrum furnishings to reveal something of the original character of the place. In the basement extending under the main house, false ceilings will be stripped to reveal the original beams of the first seventeenth-century mansion. The Architecture Room, built close to the Keeper’s House by Norman Shaw RA in 1883 and used by staff in more recent years, will be restored to reveal Shaw’s well-proportioned, typically light-filled room, with its original wooden floor and Portland stone margin.
The only constant in the life of the Keeper’s House has been the studio itself, almost unchanged since it was built and likely to remain so. If Keepers found living at the RA unnecessary, none were foolish enough to decline the opportunity to work in this glorious double-height space, flooded with natural light through its large north-facing window.
Other than the works produced in this room for the last 140 years, little is recorded about life in the Keeper’s House. There is nothing to compare with painter and writer Benjamin Haydon’s recollection of a visit to the earlier Keeper’s House at the Academy’s former location at Somerset House on the Strand. There lived the Swiss-born romantic painter Henry Fuseli RA, enveloped in supernatural, gothic visions and ghoulish tableaux. Haydon recalled wandering the place in amused terror, half expecting ‘Satan to push his head out through the wall with his cruel eye’.
The idea of a Keeper’s House is now a quirky detail in the Academy’s life. In the new Shenkman Bar and restaurant in the basement and expanded rooms on the ground floor, the Friends of the Royal Academy can discuss the exhibitions and events in greater luxury. It is fitting that this admirable restoration will enable a house built to foster creativity, education and discussion to do so in proper comfort.