The Horniman Museum, by Charles Harrison Townsend

The Horniman Museum. Listed Building. Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928). 1898-1901 (opened 1901); Library and Lecture Hall added by Townsend in 1910-12 (opened, 1912). Museum and tower, Doulting stone; remainder, red brick. London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23. Photographs and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, with helpful information from Sarah Sullivan of the Charles Harrison Townsend website. [You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one. Click on the thumbnails for larger images]

Left to right: (a) The Horniman Museum from inside the grounds. (b) Detail of the top of the clock-tower, with Townsend's typical tree motifs, a decorative dentilled cornice, and little domed turrets. (c) Robert Anning Bell's large pastel mosaic on the front elevation. Notice again the tree motifs at each side, and the leaf-carved capitals on the pilasters above — also the more "art nouveau" railings below, with ball-shaped finials. These and the wrought-iron lamp-holders, dating from around 1902, are Grade II listed (the museum is Grade II*).

The Horniman Museum stands above road level almost at the top of a rise. This, together with what Alastair Service describes as its "surging exterior," help to make it "one of the few large-scale masterpieces of English free style architecture." So the first thing to notice is how the architect has worked with the lie of the land. Height is dominant here. Service continues,

The tower is the fulcrum of the frontage design, a fascinating piece of flowing solid form that rises from the ground as a square and grows upwards into five circles richly clothed in carved stone foliage. From this tower, the end of the exhibition halls form the contrasting horizontal, curved at the top with the lines of the barrel vault. (6)

Apart from the tall clock-tower and the rounded form of the southern gallery, the first thing to strike the visitor is the huge mosaic on the façade, with its greater than life-size figures. According to the first annual report of the museum for 1901-2, these represent "Humanity in the House of Circumstance," with the Gates of Life and Death at either end. Beside the central figure of Humanity are

figures symbolising Fine Arts, Poetry and Music: Endurance, an armed figure, holds a shield and a sword with which to equip Humanity when the kneeling figures, Love and Hope, have clothed him with their qualities. Charity is nearby, bearing figs and wine; white-haired but virile Wisdom; Meditation in her sad hued garments; and finally Resignation, with sombre look, resting on his staff just in front of the Gates of Death [on the right].

The inspiration may have come from the Byzantine past, but the tesserae were British-made, mostly by the craftsman who executed the design, and pastel colours were chosen as being more appropriate to the climate. They certainly harmonise well with the lovely Doulting stone quarried in Somerset. Interestingly, they were put in place by a team of women assistants working on scaffolding, because nimble fingers were needed for the fine work involved. Since there were more than 117,000 or so pieces, the task took ten months (Coulter and Seaman 45). All in all, the mosaic is brilliant example of Arts and Crafts practices and ethos, using local and "honest" materials and craftsmanship, working as a team to ensure that the minutest details contribute to the whole effect, and aiming to cultivate and enrich the visitor's spirit (cf. the almost exactly contemporary Compton Cemetery Chapel, decorated by Mary Watts and the villagers of Compton in Surrey).

Left to right: (a) African Worlds Gallery, looking south. (b) African Worlds Gallery, looking north. Part of the text below the Balcony Gallery can be seen. It reads, "Those who look but do not see go away no wiser than when they came." (c) The conservatory from Horniman's house in Croydon, built in 1894 and a splendid example of its kind. It was re-erected here almost a hundred years later, and opened in 1990.

The first annual report also explained that the structure took into account not just the rising ground, but (like the Whitechapel Gallery) ease of access and passage for the visitors. There are two main top-lit exhibition halls, with the balcony gallery of the front one being on the same level as the back one. From the latter, visitors could exit into the beautiful grounds which are no small part of the museum's attraction. After all, the whole point was to draw people in, and encourage them to circulate.

Behind the plaque just below the mosaic, proclaiming that the museum was given to the London County Council "as representing the people of London" for their "recreation, instruction and enjoyment," lies a heart-warming story. Frederick John Horniman was a tea magnate and MP who amassed at home and abroad, but particularly in his travels in the Middle and Far East and the Americas, an enormous natural history and indigenous art collection. With his own home overflowing with these acquisitions, he moved into an adjoining house, allowing visitors to enjoy the collection first on Bank Holidays, then three days a week. So popular was the venue that a purpose-built museum was planned. Townsend was commissioned, and the foundation stone laid in late 1898. In this way, Horniman's enthusiasm, wide-ranging interest in the curiosities of the world, and public-spiritedness, resulted in a magnificent Arts and Crafts building. Its quality was recognised immediately. In that first annual report, it is accurately described as "a somewhat striking and unusual example in architecture of that forward movement which has appreciably affected the Modern English School of Applied and Decorative Arts" (2).


Coulter, John, and John Seaman. Forest Hill and Sydenham. Stroud: Sutton, 2003.

"First Annual Report of the Horniman Museum, 1901-1902." Available in the Horniman Museum.

Horniman Museum. Listed Buildings Online. English Heritage. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.

Service, Alastair. "Charles Harrison Townsend." Excerpt from an article in the Architectural Association Quarterly 6 (2), 1974. Available in the Horniman Museum.

Last modified 8 January 2024