Walking through Birkbeck history

Tim Spring, Senior Library Assistant (Acquisitions and Metadata), writes:

Birkbeck Library has an amazing image collection and I’ve always been intrigued by the people and places in these photos. Within the ‘Birkbeck History’ collection there is a set of photos taken of the family mausoleum of George Birkbeck, located in Kensal Green Cemetery. I don’t live too far from there, so a few months ago I decided to go explore and see if I could find it myself.

Photo of the Birkbeck mausoleum. A grand stone building with greek style pillars wither side and a pitched roof, also in stone.

Discovering the Birkbeck mausoleum made me wonder how many other places in London have a link to the College. I started off with some notable Birkbeckians, and very quickly found out that most of them have a blue plaque somewhere in London. I also started to learn about the history of the College, and it turns out that Birkbeck’s influence can be seen all over London.

This year Birkbeck is celebrating 100 years as a member of the University of London. In the Library we have a small group working on projects for this occasion and it was here that we came up with the idea of creating walking tours of Birkbeck history in London.

The first tour is an exploration of Birkbeck buildings, from the site the College was founded at through to our current location. This walk takes you all over central London, starting at the Strand, then heading towards the Barbican, and eventually ends up at the main Birkbeck building on Torrington Square.

Hand drawn image of the original location of the London Mechanics Institute.

The other two walks will take you past the homes of notable Birkbeckians. Some of the more famous figures on these walks include Rosalind Franklin and T. S. Eliot, but there are many other interesting people that passed through Birkbeck’s door over the years, such as Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, pictured below. My hope is that these tours will get you to enjoy going for a walk in London whilst also discovering more about the history of Birkbeck. We are a unique institution with a rich past and I think a lot of people would be surprised by what they learn about the College and all the interesting people who have helped make it what it is.

Image of Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan teaching in her Botany laboratory in 1923.

The Coade Stone image collection

In 2018, the Library received, as a bequest, the research and teaching slides of Alison Kelly, an expert on the work of Eleanor Coade. These slides complement another of our collections, London Architecture Online.

Eleanor Coade was a brilliant businesswoman who, in the late eighteenth century, developed a formula for the manufacture of artificial stone. She wasn’t the first to try this, but her product was superior to anything that had been made before. It is stronger than natural stone and stands up better to the elements. In her book, Mrs Coade’s Stone, Kelly suggests that this might be the reason the product isn’t better known: people simply don’t realise that it’s not stone. Coade called her product Lithodipyra, but it is more commonly known as Coade Stone.

Photo of the rear of Buckingham Palace.

Eleanor Coade insisted on high standards of production and employed renowned sculptors to make the originals for her moulds. Very quickly, her pieces started being used by the most important architects of the time. This means that you can see Coade Stone on many prominent buildings: Buckingham Palace (John Nash), The Bank of England (Sir John Soane), Kenwood House (Robert Adam) and the Radcliffe Observatory (James Wyatt). Closer to home, it was also used in this Bedford Square doorway.

Photo of the Bedford Square doorway. Georgian style. Around the doorway itself, decorative stone panels are picked out in white against grey bricks.

Since the pieces were made in moulds, they could be reproduced quickly and more cheaply than was possible using natural stone. Coade exploited this and marketed her work to the increasingly prosperous middle classes. The same mould could be used and adapted very easily to produce different pieces. A classical statue of a Vestal could be transformed into Faith simply by adding a chalice, or into Flora with a sheath of flowers. The collection includes many examples of the use of Coade Stone.

Photo showing four small sphinx like creatures carved in stone.
A photo of a large gargoyle next to three smaller ones.
Photo of a highly decorative grave memorial. A royal figure with crown lies below a coat of arms reading, "Le bon temps viendra', the good times will come.

A good place to start an appreciation of the work of Eleanor Coade is with the Westminster Bridge lion, made in 1937. This thirteen-tonne sculpture is on the eastern bank of the Thames at the end of Westminster Bridge. Originally, it stood high on the parapet of the Lion Brewery which was demolished to make way for the Royal Festival Hall in 1949.

Photo of the Westminster Bridge lion, made in 1937. On a large plinth is a statue of a lion standing, looking out. An old Bedford type van is parked near it.

If you pass the lion, take a moment to look at how pristine it is, despite decades in the elements, and at the quality of the workmanship. The sculptor was William Frederick Woodington, curator of the Royal Academy’s School of Sculpture.

You can view the Coade Stone collection here.

There is more about the lion here.

Bibliography

Kelly, A. (1990) Mrs Coade’s Stone, Upton-upon-Severn: The Self Publishing Association Ltd.

Birkbeck’s image collections

Birkbeck Library has a number of image collections available for research use.

Birkbeck History is full of images of notable people and events in the college’s past.

Birkbeck was the only central London university to stay open during the Blitz. Even after the library was bombed, teaching and study carried on.

Four people are working at a table. The table is in a bombed out street.

The college was one of the first to allow women to study.

Image of edwardian artists painting a life model.

The Album of Mrs Birkbeck is made up of poems, prose and images collected by Anna Birkbeck, George Birkbeck’s wife.

There are contributions from well-known society figures over a period of about 20 years from 1825. Entries from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen show that George and Anna Birkbeck were mixing with important people in the fields of the arts and social reform. Compiling these albums was a popular activity at the time, but it is rare that one survives intact and with well documented provenance.

Image of a book with a decorative spine. The book title is 'Album'.

There are two collections, Garden History Online and London Architecture Online that are made up of digitised slides from what was the university’s slide library. The slide library is now closed. These collections are extensive and varied. They contain beautiful, historical photographs, paintings, maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Image of a formal victorian garden with flower beds surrounded by low hedges, six diamond shaped topiary bushes in front.

The collections grow and develop all the time. We are currently working on a new one that compliments London Architecture Online. It contains images of architectural, monumental, sculptural and ornamental uses of Coade Stone in the UK, bequeathed to Birkbeck College by Averill Alison Kelly.

Photo of a central London street, in the 1950s or 60s. On a large plinth is a statue of a lion standing, looking out. An old Bedford type van is parked near it.

Coade Stone is an artificial stone (in reality it is a ceramic material) developed by businesswoman, Eleanor Coade in the late 1700s. Coade worked with skilled craftsmen and artists and marketed her product to highly regarded architects of her day. It can be found across the UK and internationally. In London, noted examples can be seen at Buckingham Palace, Sir John Soane’s Museum (Lincoln’s Inn Fields), Old Royal Naval Palace (Greenwich) and Schomberg House (Pall Mall)

You can explore all our collections and find images, by subject, from other collections worldwide here.