Victorian architecture’s lost giant to regain rightful recognition

The designer of the glasshouses at Kew Gardens fell out of favour – but supporters of a new museum hope to change all that

One major name is missing from the line-up of great British architects that students learn have shaped the way that Britain looks. And it is a name with quite a ring to it: Decimus Burton.

Now members of the Decimus Burton Society believe they are about to put that right by establishing this Victorian classical revivalist’s place alongside better known titans such as Christopher Wren, John Nash and Edwin Lutyens. A new museum celebrating his achievements is on the drawing board and awaits approval this spring.

Burton, born in 1800, designed a string of early new towns, including Fleetwood in Lancashire and St Leonards-on-Sea on the south coast, in addition to the grand residential areas around London’s Regents Park and Hyde Park and the world-famous glasshouses at Kew Gardens.

The Wellington Arch (1830) outside Hyde Park, London, commemorated victories in the Napoleonic wars.
The Wellington Arch (1830) outside Hyde Park, London, commemorated victories in the Napoleonic wars. Photograph: Peter Forsberg/Alamy

The grandeur of his Wellington Arch, the London landmark that played a central role last year in television coverage of the funeral of the late Queen, only underlines the profile the architect really deserves, say his campaigning admirers.

“Burton was hugely popular but does not have the recognition he should. He was a unique figure because of the long period he spanned and the extreme breadth of his work and influence,” said Paul Avis, an architectural designer and chairman of the appreciation society. Avis is part of a team finalising plans for the museum and study centre dedicated to Burton near to his former home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

Burton was the 10th child of architect James Burton – hence his first name – and he studied design under Nash. During his lifetime his creative drive made him well known in England and Ireland, where he designed Dublin’s Phoenix Park. But his reputation dropped off sharply after his death, when many of his drawings, blueprints and documents became separated or lost.

“They are scattered all over the country because Burton gave some of his documents to the Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA], where he had been vice president, while other papers were moved about or sold off by various institutions,” said Avis. “So our idea is to create a central archive.”

The sudden availability in 2020 of a pair of Burton’s grand villas has allowed the society’s to go forward with its ambition to found a museum and research centre. The two adjoining buildings in the heart of Calverley, the groundbreaking residential quarter Burton designed in 1828 for Tunbridge Wells, are the last intact pair on the terrace. With funding, including a hoped-for grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they will be opened to the public.

Picture of the frontage of a large Victorian seafront hotel, attractively curved to match the curve of the street in front. On the blank side of the building, the weords North Euston Hotel are picked out in white brick
Burton’s North Euston Hotel in Fleetwood. Photograph: Paul Melling/Alamy

“We don’t want to replace other Burton collections at RIBA or the Victoria & Albert Museum. Instead, we want an information resource at a place where he worked, inside buildings he designed,” said Avis. “He was a great innovator and Tunbridge Wells was of great importance to him. Calverley was set up with villas around a park, and accommodation above parades of shops. Princess Victoria was a patron who donated funds to build the school.”

In March 2022 members of the Burton society were given a year to work on their plan and they are to present it to the council this April.

For Burton’s fans, the lost London Colosseum, a large entertainment hall in the capital that drew on Roman and Greek architecture, remains a ghostly symbol of his unfairly forgotten status. It once stood on the edge of Regents Park and housed the largest drawn panorama of the day. This was a vast urban vista, sketched out by an artist who had positioned himself on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral for the task. Visitors travelled up to various viewing platforms to examine the painted panorama inside the first steam passenger lift.

Decimus Burton was famous in his day, but his public profile has waned.
Decimus Burton was famous in his day, but his public profile has waned. Photograph: Henrietta Fearon

Burton’s classical architectural influences were unfashionable after his death, when a taste for heavier Gothic revivalism in new buildings took over. But by the 20th century, younger architects were looking again at his innovations, in particular at the modernism of his experimental work with large glass and iron structures, as in the glasshouses of Kew. His supporters hope the museum may see his influence grow once again.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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