Terracotta in Albertopolis

Image: the Natural History Museum, London (every stone and statue, inside and out – living animals on one wing, and extinct on the other – is thought to be by *Gibbs and Canning).

Elena Porter, then a student of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme, wrote the following post to accompany the Building the Royal Albert Hall display at the V&A (ended 7 January 2018):

“The terracotta decorations of the Royal Albert Hall and South Kensington museums (known as ‘Albertopolis’) make the area distinctive. Yet, when they were under construction, it was hoped that South Kensington might lead a city-wide revival in terracotta. On 4th November 1870, the Building News referred to the construction of the Royal Albert Hall, which had been in progress since 1867 and would be finished in 1871. It remarked that ‘the attempt to decorate brick buildings solely with terra-cotta constitutes to our mind the dawn of a fourth period in London architecture.’

In early-nineteenth century Britain, terracotta was used simply as a substitute for stone, requiring little innovation in building methods. It was not until the middle of the century that terracotta decoration on the scale of the South Kensington buildings was introduced in England. Prince Albert’s plans for a new cultural centre in London required a complex building scheme and a new architectural language. Terracotta was an affordable and easy-to-use material, which suggested historical and artistic connections to Renaissance Italy, while also embodying the potential of a new ‘industrial’ era. It therefore seemed ideal for the new buildings of South Kensington.

London’s heavy pollution caused something of a crisis in city architecture in the 1850s, as ornamental details were often obscured by layers of soot. Carving stone was labour intensive, and that labour would be wasted if the details of carving would soon be indiscernible because of pollution. Architects therefore looked for a cheaper alternative to stone. Casting terracotta from moulds did not require the extra labour of carving by hand, and therefore saved time and money. It provided a cheap way to introduce decoration, and therefore meaning, to a façade.

The decoration of the Royal Albert Hall was intended to reflect the purpose of the building. This purpose is most explicitly visible in the mosaic frieze, which depicts “the advancement of the Arts & Sciences and works of industry of all nations” for which (it states) the Hall was erected. However, that same purpose is also visible in the general use of terracotta, as a building material that made use of modern construction methods whilst creating a visual connection to Renaissance Italy. This created a link between the advancement of arts and sciences during the Renaissance and Prince Albert’s grand plans for South Kensington.

However, the decision to use the material in public buildings was controversial. It provoked much discussion among architects, including a debate at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1868. In particular, terracotta’s durability and strength were concerns. *Gibbs and Canning, a sanitary-pipe factory in Tamworth, Staffordshire, supplied all the terracotta for the Hall, and defended the use of the material. Mr Canning described the terracotta used for the Hall as comprising ‘pure fire-clay’ and a ‘little grog’. Gilbert Redgrave, who worked on the design for the Hall, remarked in the same meeting that the ‘fire-clay’ used for the Hall was ‘a material of the hardness of which there can be no question’. His comments on the material reflect the vision for Albertopolis as a whole. Redgrave stated:

I look upon terra cotta both glazed and unglazed as a material which will eventually make London architecture permanently beautiful and imperishable.

A ‘permanently beautiful and imperishable’ exterior was appropriate for an area that was intended to be forward-looking, educational and inspirational.

Terracotta was also fitting because of its cultural connections and historic uses. Not only did it echo Italian Renaissance architecture, but it had been adopted by German states as a fundamental building material for their cultural centres in the preceding decades. However, unlike the smooth finish of many Neoclassical architectural decorations, the terracotta decorations of the Royal Albert Hall were made to appear ‘rough’. A finish that showed the signs of manufacture, in its colour and texture, was thought to represent the spirit of Albertopolis. This spirit involved championing new materials, with a lack of pretension, and a sense of honesty in revealing the relationship between industry and design.”

From Wikipedia:

“*Gibbs and Canning Limited was an English manufacturer of terracotta and, in particular, architectural terracotta, located in Glascote, Tamworth, and founded in 1847.

The company manufactured a wide range of terracotta and faience: statues of lions and pelicans to adorn the Natural History Museum in London; architectural terracotta for banks and schools; and garden urns and planters. By the 1950s, when the factory finally closed, it was best known for more practical items, such as drainage pipes, sinks, vases and jars.

Today, there is little evidence of the factory in Glascote, but the legacy lives on in the decoration and plumbing of many buildings in Britain’s major towns and cities.

Buildings in London featuring Gibbs and Canning terracotta:

• Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse. Both the interior and exterior statues, and the block-work, are Gibbs and Canning (G&C).

• Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London. The buff, ornamental terracotta on the exterior.

• 142 Holborn Bars, Prudential Assurance Building, Holborn, London. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse with all the red terracotta by G&C.”

Further examples here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s