Sir Alfred Waterhouse Biography

Sir Alfred Waterhouse: Architect of the Natural History Museum

Sir Alfred Waterhouse, architect and designer, is perhaps best known for his design of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, London, completed in 1866. His output was prolific, and his projects were varied, including the headquarters of the Prudential Insurance Company at Holborn Bar, London (1892-1902). This building was the largest in a group of twenty-three buildings across Britain designed by Waterhouse for the insurance company. This project allowed Waterhouse to develop a specific identity for the Prudential, as he was also commissioned to design the furnishings. The benches he offered not only met practical requirements through their size and form but also provided stylistic conformity.

The Evolution of Waterhouse’s Architectural Style

At the start of his career, August Welby Pugin (1812-1852) was a key influence on Waterhouse. However, as he developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, he shifted his focus to more contemporary design ideals, bridging the gap between 'Reformed Gothic' and 'The Aesthetic' styles. There are parallels between his furniture designs and those of his friend, the architect and designer Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912).

Key Projects and Collaborations

Waterhouse was commissioned to transform Blackmoor Farm House in Hampshire into a mansion by providing designs for functional buildings and furniture, a task he carried out between 1866-73. He employed Henry Capel for the Blackmoor project, relying on Capel's high standards. Although a dedicated reader of Pugin's and Ruskin's writings and a producer of many study sketches of their work, Waterhouse never hesitated to embellish his Gothic designs with features from other historic styles, hence developing a distinct architectural language. He studied historic styles during his 'Grand Tour' through Europe (1853-54) and was excited about the variety of possibilities. He once remarked: "Returned home much disgusted with English architecture. We want size, light, and shade, and colour in our buildings and in ourselves more good humour and good manners."

Waterhouse’s Most Important Commission: Eaton Hall

The third Marquis of Westminster, who became the 2nd Duke of Westminster in 1874, commissioned Sir Alfred Waterhouse to substantially remodel and rebuild Eaton Hall, the most important commission of Waterhouse's career. The work began in 1869 and was completed in 1883. The large drawing room is featured in a photograph taken circa 1887, plate 199 in Jeremy Cooper's 'Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors', where Cooper mentions that the Duke had spent £600,000 on the decoration alone, with Heaton, Butler and Bayne carrying out the work. Sotheby’s and various other local auctioneers held many sales of the contents of Eaton Hall from 1955 through to 1961 until the Hall was demolished in 1961.

Researched and written by Tony Geering.