Francis Fowke: Kensington’s Most Iconic Buildings
Kensington would look very different if it weren’t for the renaissance architecture of Francis Fowke. This visionary engineer was the mind behind the likes of the Royal Albert Hall and the V&A Museum. His buildings have become some of the most-loved in London and truly stand the test of time.
Captain Francis Fowke was born in 1823 to a military family and received training as an engineer at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. It was this background that would shape his career, as Prince Albert favoured working with engineers and builders over architects.
Known for his inventiveness and ingenuity, Fowke was not afraid to experiment with new materials and techniques. He started to use terracotta in the buildings he designed and put systems in place to improve the ventilation and lighting in public edifices.
His untimely death in 1865 at the age of just 42 put an end to his career, but he left behind a number of iconic buildings that still dominate Kensington to this day.
Royal Albert Hall
In the wake of the successful Great Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert proposed a building scheme in the vicinity of Hyde Park to act as a permanent cultural legacy of the event. Despite the Prince Consort’s death in 1861, the plans went ahead and in 1867, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the Royal Albert Hall, which can still be viewed to this day.
Fowke, along with fellow designer, Henry Young Darracott Scott, was influenced by the classical form of the amphitheatre, but used contemporary techniques to replicate its shape in the construction of the Royal Albert Hall. These included an immense dome made from a wrought iron frame that was then glazed. The Fareham red brick of the Royal Albert Hall is set off by its intricate frieze showing the advancements in arts and sciences, made out of Fowke’s beloved terracotta.
Although the Museum of Manufactures, which would become the V&A Museum, originally opened its doors in 1851, it did not welcome visitors to its current site until 1857. Having outgrown its first home, the museum and its collections were assigned space in the area that Prince Albert was redeveloping in Brompton.
The museum started off as a rather ugly temporary building that was not met with much favour and Fowke was brought in to oversee the creation of the Sheepshanks Gallery. Not only was the renaissance style much more pleasing to the eye, but Fowke’s signature innovation was present in the form of gas lighting, allowing it to stay open later in the winter.
It opened as The South Kensington Museum in 1857 and further expansion was overseen by Fowke in subsequent years. His vision included a quadrangle with an iron and glass roof, with systems to allow light and air to flow freely incorporated into the design.
Natural History Museum
When it was decided that a new building should be created specifically to house the British Museum’s natural history collection, a competition was announced to find its designer. This was won by none other than Fowke, but tragedy struck and he died of a burst blood vessel just a year later.
The relatively unknown Alfred Waterhouse took over the project and adapted Fowke’s designs to bring the Natural History Museum to fruition. Fowke would surely have approved of the extensive use of terracotta throughout the imposing building.
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