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Where art meets science

An architectural love affair

Philip Strange 31 May 2009

Crossroads: a scientific subversion on Piccadilly

You might expect considerable interaction, but cohabitation does not necessarily mean cross fertilisation

Where do you go for a bit of peace and quiet in central London? One of my favourite spots is the courtyard of Burlington House. Here there are fountains, sculptures and an open air café providing an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly and the effete consumerism of Fortnum and Mason. Most people know Burlington House for the Royal Academy of Arts: one of the premier galleries in the UK. Its popular summer exhibition is a key fixture on many social calendars, but it also hosts outstanding temporary and permanent exhibitions.

Once, this part of London was surrounded by fields. Difficult to believe as the cars dash past now, but that's how it was in 1664 when the older part of Burlington House, the structure now housing the Royal Academy, was built for Sir John Denham, a wealthy lawyer and poet. Other well-known people have lived here. The composer George Frideric Handel resided in the house for three years from 1713. The scientist Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen, stayed there for several years as a young man in the late 18th century.

This all changed in 1854 when the government purchased Burlington House and proposed, in 1866, that the Royal Academy should occupy the main building. Two wings were to house six learned societies – The Royal Society, The Chemical Society, The Linnean Society, The Geological Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The Royal Society moved to Carlton House Terrace in 1967 but the others remain, leaving quite a concentration of science in this apparently arty area of London.

Wise The goddess Athena?

When the Victorians built the two wings they included many decorative sculptures, some of which symbolise the link between art and science. I particularly like the seven mysterious sculptures of female heads dotted around the courtyard and on the Piccadilly side. The symbolism can be tantalising but obscure, but perhaps we can decode it for the one on the Piccadilly side of the entrance archway. She has snakes around her neck and an owl on her head, and therefore probably represents the Greek goddess Athena, with whom the owl and snakes are often associated. One of Athena’s attributes is wisdom, very fitting for such a location.

My favourite is the beautiful veiled head over the door of the Society of Antiquaries. Perhaps she denotes the past, which the Antiquaries are charged to study and preserve; some have speculated that she represents the “veil of time”. A more mundane explanation may be that the Victorian sculptor was trying his hand at emulating the contemporary Italian sculptors, for whom veiled female heads were popular at the time.

A modern expression of the building's link between art and science appeared when the courtyard was revamped in 2002. Following a donation by the former US ambassador, Walter Annenberg, and his wife Leonore, fountains and accompanying lights were installed. These were not in a random pattern, but instead placed to depict the configuration of the stars, moon and planets above London at midnight on 16th July 1723, the birthday of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy.

Veiled A sculpture of obscure meaning

The planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Pluto – are represented by polished disks of granite, and the stars by jets of water or lights around the statue of Sir Joshua. The summer triangle of Altair, Deneb and Vega is visible in the centre. Bizarrely, the fountains and lights can also be made to perform a display to the accompaniment of part of Handel’s Water Music, reflecting the links of Burlington House with this composer.

So although most people don’t realise it, Burlington House is a place where major art and major science coexist. You might expect considerable interaction between these different groups, but cohabitation does not necessarily mean cross fertilisation. I imagine that many visitors to the Royal Academy are not aware of the scientific societies or the meaning of the fountains. To be fair though, a cultural campus was inaugurated here in 2006 and the Royal Academy and the five learned societies now put on a lecture series entitled “Burlington House – arts and sciences in the heart of London”. It would be good to see this cultural campus idea extended; surely this could be a place to investigate how science can inform art, especially the visual arts, and vice versa.

Related information

The author would like to thank the following for their help in preparing this article: Kate Bennett (Royal Society of Chemistry), Julia Steele (Society of Antiquaries), an anonymous source from the Royal Academy and Hazel Strange for the photographs.