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In the Beginning ...

Robert Smirke, architect

Drawing of Robert Smirke, architect of King's College London facing to the rightSir Robert Smirke by William Daniell, after George Dance (1809)Robert Smirke (1780-1867) was appointed architect of the new King's College in 1829. He was knighted in 1832.

He already had a considerable reputation as resident architect of the Office of Works and famously was responsible for the General Post Office and British Museum.

Smirke's architectural training included study at the Royal Academy next door in Somerset House. For a few months he had been articled to Sir John Soane. By the time he undertook the commission for King's College London, he was treasurer of the Royal Academy.

Smirke's style was usually rather heavy and classical and the monumentality of his conceptions might have been lost rather on the unprepossessing timber yard with which the College was presented in June 1829.

Smirke faced three main problems with the vacant plot: limited works access, the sloping terrain and its long and narrow prospect. The Thames, before the construction of the Embankment in the 1860s, was much wider than today and the tidal waters also presented a challenge.

Furthermore, Smirke was also compelled to conform to the existing design of the Somerset House river frontage when building the adjacent south wing of the College, which he was obliged to complete within five years under the terms of its grant. Smirke sketched various plans in spring 1829 comprising a three storey building containing a chapel and hall, ten lecture rooms for 2000 students, offices for academic staff, facilities for the school, lodging for a Principal, museums and a mortuary for bodies to be used in anatomy classes.

The estimated cost of the work was £150,000. The final plan, approved in July 1829, was a scaled back version designed to save money and required the postponement of the southern, riverside, buildings from the first phase of development. 

The first phase of building had cost £85,889 in August 1831.

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