On 22 August 1861, Sir George Gilbert Scott was told by the Office of Works that the site would ‘soon be disposable’ and was instructed to proceed with working drawings and a specification for the new Foreign Office. As John Kelk (1816-86) had submitted the lowest tender for the Gothic Foreign Office two years earlier, it was agreed that he would carry out the foundations. Scott’s office duly made the necessary revisions to the foundation drawings of the new design and on 5 September, Kelk’s offer £19,577 for the work was accepted by the Office of Works.
Scott knew that Whitehall was built over marshy ground and, with his experiences on Hungerford Market and the Fishmongers Hall, he fully appreciated the precautions that were necessary for such a large building on a poor load-bearing soil. One of the reasons for the decay of the old Foreign Office was its poor foundations so Cowper readily agreed that those for the new building should be sunk to a depth of eighteen feet. Scott and Wyatt agreed that the foundations of both offices would be excavated simultaneously which meant that work on the Foreign Office had to wait until the site of the India Office was cleared. Wyatt arranged a separate contract with Kelk for the foundations of the India Office, who agreed to do the work for £19,990. Work on both sites eventually started in mid-July 1862, when Joseph Sheffield, who had been Scott’s Clerk of Works at Kelham, another riverside site, arrived to supervise this huge project at a salary of two guineas a week.
Kelk employed between 400 and 500 men to dig a massive U shaped crater, over twenty feet deep, which he then partly filled with concrete to form a great twelve feet thick slab on which the two offices would stand. Scott was taking no chances with his foundations, but it was only when this work had actually begun that it was realised that the new design could not fit on to the land which the Government had bought. The land designated for the competition designs was narrower at the park end than at the King Street end but the new layout required a site with parallel sides. The consequence was that the building operations, when they started, projected some thirty feet illegally into the park. The Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, the Ranger of St. James’s Park, saw this and immediately complained to Cowper with the result that a special Act of Parliament was hurried through Parliament to regularise the situation.
During the spring and summer of 1862 it would seem that Scott’s office, and Edgar in particular, worked hard to produce the enormous number of drawings that were required for the superstructure of the building. Once again, the Office of Works followed the somewhat dubious course of inviting twelve prospective tenderers to meet with Scott and Hunt, on 12 August, to discuss the work involved. Scott had presumably thought that his drawings were now sufficiently advanced to adequately describe all the building work required, but with the competitive lump-sum system introduced by Hunt, it was essential that the most detailed and accurate information was supplied so all the tenderers could work from a common basis. Architects could produce drawings and a specification but, with a project of this size, the builders would have probably expected that a Bill of Quantities would be drawn up, precisely setting down all the materials and labour required for the work. This is a painstaking and time-consuming task which can only be carried out by a professional quantity surveyor, of whom, incidentally, Hunt was one of earliest. Charles Balam, who was in practice at Buckingham Street, off The Strand, was Scott’s quantity surveyor on the Foreign Office, but presumably the information that Scott had produced for the August meeting was inadequate, and it was not until about October 1862 that he was able to provide sufficient drawings to enable Balam to start to draw up the Bill.
On the completion of the foundations, Kelk retired on a fortune amassed as a railway constructor. His successors, George Smith and Company, were invited along with the twelve other builders to tender for the superstructure of the building. Smith’s had, it seems, already been working on the first stage of the India Office for Wyatt. So not surprisingly, when the tenders were opened in the Office of Works on 21 August 1863, Smith’s at £195,573 was the lowest with the assurance that the work would be completed by 1 September 1863. Smiths’ were informed of their success on 31 August and the contract was signed on 11 September 1863. Wyatt appointed Daniel Ruddle as Clerk of Works for the India Office and Sheffield began to work exclusively on the Foreign Office, with a doubling of his salary to four guineas a week. But it was not until mid-November that the construction of the Foreign Office actually started by which time nearly £26,000 had been spent on the India Office and in places it was nearly up to first floor level. Smiths’ were working to a schedule of rates for the India Office and had promised to complete the India Office on 1 April 1866, five months before the Foreign Office. In the event, both completion dates were wildly optimistic and neither office was complete until the summer of 1868.
Jackson claimed that the Foreign Office was the finest thing that Scott ever did. Certainly, the park front was his best composition and the interiors are superb. Now that the state apartments have been restored to their former glory, it is difficult to think of any interiors in his Gothic buildings which produce such an extreme impression of sumptuous spaciousness and grandeur. The requirement in the competition conditions that the Foreign Secretary should have a residence was later dropped as it was considered, in those days, that every Foreign Secretary would have his own town house, but the great suite of reception rooms where he could entertain on a grand scale was retained. Clearly, working offices gave Scott little scope for architectural expression, and he agreed with Hope who later described the building as ‘a kind of national palace, or drawing room for the nation, with working rooms hung on it for the foreign business of the country’.
Apart from the Foreign Secretary’s room overlooking St. James’s Park, there are three conference rooms and the main staircase on which Scott lavished particular care and attention. The stair, now known as the Ambassadors’ Staircase, is one of grandest in London, occupying a sixty feet high space, although it only links the ground and first floors. The whole space has a barrel-vaulted ceiling with a shallow dome over the central portion. In view of Scott’s partiality for domes, it is surprising that this is the only place where he uses this classical feature in the building. The whole effect was considerably enhanced when Clayton and Bell added appropriately allegorical painted decorations to the dome and its corner spandrels, and Skidmore suspended two great bronze gas chandeliers, each with 180 burners, from the vaulting. The staircase branches at the first landing, with the right side leading to the Foreign Secretary’s suite, while the left leads to the largest conference room, where the Locarno treaties were ratified at a great gathering of European statesmen in December 1925 and, with the two rooms beyond has, thereafter, been known as the Locarno Suite.
Scott designated the largest conference room as the Cabinet Room on his drawings. It was never used as such during his lifetime and it seems that only during the Boer War, when Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister, was it used for this purpose. The reason that Scott assigned the room to the Cabinet was that traditionally it met at the Foreign Office, but with the deterioration of the old Downing Street houses, Cabinet meetings in October 1856 were transferred to across the street to number 10, where they are still held today. The Cabinet Room is the grandest room in Scott’s Foreign Office. It is the only one to go through two stories, with clerestory lighting provided by means of small transverse vaults cutting into the sides of a great barrel vault which spans across the room. Again, Clayton and Bell enhanced the grandeur by classically inspired decorations, including elaborately painted panels on the vaulting. The two large rooms beyond, which Scott designated conference rooms, are equally sumptuous in their decorative schemes and both have deep coffered ceilings.
All the architectural detail in the Locarno Suite is classical in derivation but, as Scott admitted, he took ‘liberties with the style’. Particularly noticeable is the use of gilded Corinthian capitals, in isolation as corbels, and, elsewhere, he expanded the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capital in a most unorthodox manner into a long band of foliage. It appears that Wyatt in the India Office never deviated from the strict rules of classical architecture, yet the impression today, now that it is easy to compare both interiors, is that Scott’s rather less cluttered design produces a level of grandeur and stateliness which Wyatt’s more fussy interior fails to achieve.
With the interiors of the state rooms and his inspired park front, Scott rose to a new high point in his architecture. Never before had he produced anything as fine, nor, ironically, was he ever again to give us anything quite as good as the Foreign Office. Even with the Albert Memorial and the Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras, where he was able to use his beloved Gothic, he failed to achieve the same combination of beauty and appropriateness. Palmerston was right: Scott was the man for the job. Whether the old Premier would have approved of the completed building, will never be known, as he quietly died on 18 October 1865, some three years before his ‘Italian’ Foreign Office was to be fully realised.
With the drawings sufficiently complete to enable the contract to be signed in September 1863, the pressure was off Scott and he could turn his attention to more congenial matters. After six months, during which he could have been pondering over his role in the Foreign Office affair, in March 1864 he embarked on the Recollections. The explanation that he wanted to inform his children about his career is a good enough reason for writing the account, but it is also clear that he felt that it was still necessary for him to give his own version of events surrounding the Foreign Office, in spite of being weary of the whole affair. He was clearly convinced that he would be seen in a poor light:
My shame & sorrow were for a time extreme but to my surprise, the public seemed to understand my position & to feel for it, & I never received any annoying & painful rebuke … even Ruskin told me that I had done quite right …
The defeat of the Liberal Government in June 1866 brought the Conservatives back to power with Scott’s ally, Lord John Manners, as First Commissioner again. Although it was far too late for any important design changes to the Foreign Office, Scott was able to nominate some of his favourite Gothic craftsmen, particularly Clayton and Bell as decorators, and Skidmore to carry out the gas fitting. For the rest of Scott’s life, his great classical building, so close to Spring Gardens, was a constant reminder of his ignominious climb-down in the face of Palmerston’s attack. Nevertheless, during its twelve year construction period, the Government Offices, including the Home and Colonial Offices, earned him about £24,000 in fees, while his very public fight with Palmerston made him the champion of the use of Gothic for secular buildings.
Toplis, I., The Foreign Office, an Architectural History (Mansell Publishing, London and New York, 1987), pp. 16, 24, 30, 35-8, 53, 63-5, 68, 75-6, 80, 84, 87-90, 92, 97, 100, 103, 112, 114-15, 120-1, 123-4, 126, 128, 131, 133-4, 137-9, 142, 144, 218, 231.
Scott’s Recollections, II 172, 175-9, 184-6, 189-90, 192-5, 199-204, 206-16, 218-36, 238, 324, III 112.
The Builder, XV, 1857, p. 37.
Parliamentary Papers, 1857-8, (417.) q 1068.
Broadlands Papers, GC/SC/18/1-6.
The Builder, 6 August, 1857, p. 517.
Fawcett, J. (ed.), Seven Victorian Architects (Thames and Hudson, London, 1976), p. 31.
The Builder, 27 August 1859, pp. 562-3.
Scott, G. G., Personal and Professional Recollections, Stamp, G. (ed.), (Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1995), p. 190.
Broadlands Papers, GC/SC/20.
McBride, D., A History of Hawkstone (Dennis McBride,1993), p. 12.
Scott, G. G., Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (John Murray,London, 2nd ed. 1858), p. 191.
Ridley, J., Lord Palmerston (Constable, London, 1970), pp. 163-4.
PRO Works, 6/307, 13.
Jackson, Sir T. G., Bt. R. A., Recollections, The Life and Travels of a Victorian Architect (Unicorn Press, London, 2003), pp. 73-4.
The Saturday, X, 28 July 1860, p. 111 [a].
Sotheby’s Catalogue, 15 May 1972, p. 23.
The Builder, XXX, 1873, p. 802.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 85 [b].
Parliamentary Papers, 1877, (312) XV 295, qq 708-10.
Graves, A., The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1767 to 1904 (Graves and Bell, London, 1906), VII, p. 57.
PRO Works, 6/307/pp. 22, 35.
PRO Works, 6/307/50.
Hall had been M.P. for Marylebone since 1837 and was appointed First Commissioner in Palmerston’s Liberal Government in July 1855.
Assuming Scott’s fees were 5% of the total cost, excluding the India Office, of £485,991 (Parl. Papers 1877 (312.) XV, 295, appendix No. 6, Letter from John S. Lee to Sir Gilbert Scott, 27 June 1877). Today this is about the equivalent of £1,380,828 for Scott’s fees and £27,961,260 for the cost of the building.