Page C2.2 . 01 October 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Alfred Waterhouse's Terracotta Menagerie


Sizing the Flora and Fauna

The scale of the various creatures must have been a problem from the start. There is a careful intimacy in the way in which the small birds are handled in the arches of the Index Museum, at precisely the height and scale they might have been seen in real life.

At cornice level, by contrast, the animals, though fully modeled, register largely as vertical accents on the long parapet. The panels of plants in the gallery piers have an obvious decorative quality, and, all drawn on sheets of roughly the same size, hardly mimic the growth patterns of the different species.

It is typical of Waterhouse that each drawing shows the same close attention to eventual location and size as well as to form and texture, though each is executed to virtually the same dimensions. The similarity in size of the drawings tends to disguise the fact that Waterhouse was required to design for spaces, such as the gate panels, that would be seen close to, and others that would be seen from a distance of almost 150 feet (46 meters).

Populating the Roofline

Part of Waterhouse's success had always been his ability to create a romantic skyline for large buildings. The Natural History Museum was some 750 feet (230 meters) long and proportionately tall. Each wing consisted of eleven bays, stopped by a pavilion, and the roofline of these immense blocks also had to be decorated with appropriately-sized figures.

Here, Waterhouse designed four types, each of a slightly different scale. On a Gothic building it was natural to provide gargoyles at cornice level. Then there were figures in roundels in the gabled dormer windows. Each dormer was intended to be capped by freestanding beasts, with further larger animals modeled in the round, on the parapet between them. At six feet (1.8 meters) in height, these are the largest decorative creatures of the whole scheme, and had to be made in two pieces.

Waterhouse provided only two designs for gargoyles for the south front, which show him at his best in the sense that both versions are intensely decorative. They are, however, emphatically not portraits of any known species, even if carefully distinguished from each other.

The way in which the manes are curled, like early classical sculptures, are a reminder that his interests were those of a decorative designer and not of a scientist. He could indeed be quite flamboyant in his abstract designing and seldom lost an opportunity of "enriching," as the Victorians called it, the various elements of the buildings he was constructing.

The real treasures of the parapet are the huge single beasts, a set of six designs, three living and three extinct, which are highly dramatic in their pencil work. Fur, fangs, and musculature are all boldly delineated and, appropriately for their lofty situation, several are drawn from a low viewpoint.

The great paleotherium appears here, with a strikingly drawn head and boldly modeled forelegs. Oddly, for such important elements, there is only one drawing, and no side elevations or even plans to show how they would fit on their bases. Presumably, the overall dimensions and the size of the base itself was sufficient for both architect and modeler.

Instead, we are treated to four vigorous profiles, with only the lion and the mylodon drawn full frontal. These last two have boldly detailed coats, but the series as a whole offers a more even match between naturalism and pattern.

The wolf for the western wing was drawn as early as August 1876, perhaps as a trial, and the others between January and May of 1877, shortly before they would have been needed. Set between the gables, four casts of each design are set up in an irregular rhythm to make a total of twelve beasts flanking the eleven gables.

In the gables themselves, the four designs (the eagle appears on both wings) repeat in a regular pattern, forming a sort of counterpoint. This interplay of two rhythms prevents an identical combination in any bay, and is an integral part of Waterhouse's decorative recipe, which should be considered alongside the designs for each individual creature.

The Facade: First-Floor Galleries

The main emphasis of the external decoration is centered on the first-floor galleries and the entrance. Each first-floor window, a Venetian form with two lights and circular tracery above, is enriched with one freestanding model of an animal and a pair of relief panels filling the space beneath the sill. Here, one sees most clearly the distinction between extinct species which were to be displayed in, and were to ornament, the east wing and living species, whose home was the west wing.

Three fine sheets, each with a pair of designs, contain the two series of three that are repeated on west and east wings respectively. Each animal sits on an outline of its base block and, to allow for the window, construction is cut off at the back where it fits tight against the wall.

Waterhouse's sense of pattern comes through in the ingenious differences in the manes of five of these wonderful creatures, but they are all carefully shaded to show musculature. Four are drawn as though in elevation, but the pterodactyl and what must surely be another extinct creature, although it has been tentatively identified as a griffin, are shown in perspective with their bases.

Together, these figures make up some of the most clearly visible members of the decorative menagerie, for they are close enough to be seen clearly from the ground, and are modeled in the round.

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Colin Cunningham has written extensively on Victorian architecture. He is a former chairman of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, and recently retired from the post of Reader in Architectural History at the Open University.

This article is excerpted from The Terracotta Designs of Alfred Waterhouse, copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, available at



ArchWeek Image

Terracotta monkeys climb the interior arches of the Natural History Museum in London, by Alfred Waterhouse.
Photo: The Natural History Museum, London

ArchWeek Image

Five versions of the monkeys for the main arches.
Image: Alfred Waterhouse

ArchWeek Image

Detail of the roof of the east wing with seated mylodon, gargoyle, and xiphodon in the roundel of the gable.
Photo: The Natural History Museum, London

ArchWeek Image

Pencil drawing of the mylodon.
Image: Alfred Waterhouse

ArchWeek Image

Patterned shafts of the principal entrance.
Photo: The Natural History Museum, London

ArchWeek Image

Boldly designed capitals from the principal entrance.
Image: Alfred Waterhouse

ArchWeek Image

Two extinct animals, the pterodactyl and the saber-toothed tiger, drawn for the first-floor windows of the east wing.
Image: Alfred Waterhouse

ArchWeek Image

The Terracotta Designs of Alfred Waterhouse.
Image: John Wiley & Sons


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