Friday, May 15, 2009

Royal College of Organists, London

Pulling out all the stops

I probably first went to a concert in the Royal Albert Hall about 30 years ago, and when I came out I was amazed and slightly stunned by the building just to the west of the hall. I must have passed it dozens of times since then, but it still makes me look. How could such an extraordinary building have materialized among the terracotta and brick of South Kensington?

It was part of the succession of educational and artistic endeavours that took place in the area in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. From the Natural History Museum and the V & A northwards to the Albert Hall, a swathe of culture and learning was cut through West London, turning the area into what became known as Albertoplis. With the great elliptical Albert Hall completed, a proposal was launched for a National Training School for Music, and this was the building that emerged to fill the role.

It was designed by Lt H. H. Cole, one of a number of military engineers associated with the buildings of Albertopolis and the son of Sir Henry Cole (mastermind of the Great Exhibition, prime mover of the V & A, designer of the first postage stamp, and creator of the first Christmas card). A hard act to follow for his son, who’d been a Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey in the North-West Province in India. Cole Junior was not an experienced architect, and he worked with his father and a committee of the great and the good developing the design over a period of months after the committee was formed in 1873. Its light rooms and convenient position served the Training College well until it was closed after the formation of the Royal College of Music. The Royal College of Organists moved in during 1904 and stayed until 1990.

The college would be a pleasant but unremarkable structure without the reliefs and sgraffito decoration designed by F W Moody and carried out by the artist’s students. Musical personifications, instruments of all sorts, portraits of composers, musical putti, the building has the lot. It’s a façade as noisy as the studios and practice rooms it no doubt contained. A writer in Country Life said that the effect was as if the building had strayed here from Istanbul, and it is just as lively as any building in that noisy and vibrant city. A bit of a fish out of water, then. But not a cold fish, nor one that need be ashamed of its scales.


Anonymous said...

Although the building used to house the RCO, it doesn't any more. They moved to Birmingham some time ago - 1990 according to their website. The building is now a private residence.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks very much for pointing this out. I've altered the wording of the post slightly to reflect this fact.

Neil said...

How sad that the Royal College of Organists should move out of a building that actually looks like an organ... and wonderfully witty of them to have moved in in the first place.

Paul said...

Such a shame tat the building is not occupied by a musical organization in view of the musical decoration to be seen everywhere. What is the building used for now?

Anonymous said...

Apparently it's now owned by some rich russian

Anonymous said...

It's owned by Robert Tchenguiz.