Step inside Whitehall’s jewel: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office building
Exploring George Gilbert Scott’s stunning government offices in Westminster.
Many UK Government buildings in Westminster date back to the Victorian era. It was an age when no expense was spared when it came to decorating buildings’ exteriors and interiors, when structures were created to ‘make a statement’ about the people within them. Although the Palace of Westminster gets most of the attention from Londoners and visitors to the capital alike, there is also another remarkable piece of architecture housing a government department. At the time it was built, Britain was at the height of colonial power, so had an extensive budget with which to impressive foreign visitors.
When it came to settling on the final design for what we know today as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Building, it was an arduous process to get there. As was (and still is) common at the time, a competition was launched in 1856 to choose the design for the Foreign Office and neighbouring War Office. English architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) ended up in third place in the competition with his original Gothic revival design (see the designs in the RIBA archives), which also incorporated the War Office. However, it was Scott’s former pupil Henry Edward Coe (1826-1885) and his then-partner HH Hofland’s French Visconti-type design which was chosen for the Foreign Office. However, Coe and Hofland’s plans were ditched the following year when Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), brought in the government’s favoured architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), who had originally designed plans for the Foreign Office a few years previously, but had not entered the competition. Lord Palmerston’s decision to dismiss the competition results outraged the architecture industry, with Scott leading the protest against it. In 1858, Lord Palmerston lost power and Scott was given the commission. It was around this time, the plans for the War Office were ditched in favour of the India Office, established in 1858 to take over the governing of India from the East India Company.
In June 1859, Lord Palmerston was re-elected and kicked up a fuss over Scott’s neo-Gothic design, demanding he redesign something neo-Classical, which the architect described as “a style contrary to my life’s labours”. Scott feared ditching his signature style would leave his reputation as one of the key Gothic Revival architects “irreparably injured”. However, Scott decided turning down the opportunity would be unwise, bought some books on Italian architecture and headed to Paris to study classical buildings, such as the Louvre. The India Office insisted he collaborate with their Surveyor Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), who designed the interior of their office, leaving Scott to focus on the classical exterior of both offices. The plans were finally approved by the Government in 1861, with construction completed in 1868. The Foreign Office was located on the north-west corner of the building with the India office on the south-west corner, while the Colonial Office and Home Office were added on the eastern side in 1875. Fortunately, Scott’s fears about his reputation were unfounded, with support from his peers and the public. “Even Mr (John) Ruskin said I had done right,” wrote Scott in his Personal & Professional Recollections in 1879. As for Scott’s original Gothic vision of the Foreign Office, it was used as the basis for the Midland Hotel at St Pancras.
On completion, it was the first purpose-built Foreign Office, which by that point had been in existence for nearly 80 years. The white, Portland stone façade features many classical elements, including balustrades, columns and pediments. Dotted around are sculptures of former monarchs and politicians as well as allegorical figures of Law, Commerce and Art by English sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) and John Birnie Philip (1824-1875). Most enter the complex through the grand arched entrance on King Charles street leading to a large outdoor courtyard.
As impressive as Scott’s blinding light exterior is, it gives no hint of the lavish interior lurking inside. No expense was spared on the rooms and hallways, which were suitably extravagant to impress visitors from the British Empire and beyond. Among Scott’s beautiful interiors is the Locarno Suite, originally designed for diplomatic banquets. The suite of rooms are named after the Locarno treaties, which were signed in them in 1925. In the Victorian era, Clayton and Bell – famous for their stained glass designs – gilded the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Cabinet Room with stencils of classical figures and zodiac signs.
The Grand Staircase is one the main attractions, although was difficult for me to photograph during my Open House London visit due to the lighting and the sheer volume of people (pre-COVID obviously!). These stairs would be one of the first things ambassadors, dignitaries and other high-profile guests see as they arrive for meetings or social events upstairs – talk about making a first impression! The Imperial, marble staircase is covered in a plush red carpet with Greek ornament pattern, leading upstairs to a gallery, with two landings halfway up either side. The cavernous space is covered by a barrel vault ceiling and central dome, which depicts the sun and the signs of the Zodiac. Surrounding the sky are 20 female figures which represent some of the countries Britain had relations with in the 1860s, grouped into continents. Dotted around the staircase are sculptures of former Foreign Secretaries from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Meanwhile, in the adjoining former India Office, the main attraction is the striking Durbar Court, designed by Wyatt. Originally open to the elements, the court is surrounded by three storeys of columns (Doric, Ionian and Corinthian) and arches made of red and grey granite. The stunning floor is a mix of Greek, Belgian and Sicilian marble. The court is richly decorated with marble statues and busts by artists Hugues Protat, W Nicholls and Theodore Phyffers; and majolica friezes by Minton, Hollins & Co. The top storey features busts in between plaques displaying the name of cities in India.
The former India Office boasts two beautiful staircases. The Muses’ Staircase led up to the Secretary of State for India’s office. Daylight streams down the marble stairs through an octagonal glass lantern, which is surrounded by sculptures of cherubs and goddesses. Meanwhile, the Gurkha staircase is another grand ascent, with statues of Sir Eyre Coote, the Marquis Cornwallis, Richard, Marquis Wellesley; and the Duke of Wellington, perched overlooking the landing. So much money was spent on the design and interiors of the Foreign and India Offices, the subsequent Colonial and Home Office were more low-key.
Between the 1920s and 1960s, the distaste for Victorian design meant much of Scott and Wyatt’s elaborate features were hidden behind plasterboard and false ceilings. Clayton and Bell’s stencilling was painted over, with much of the gilding removed. From the 1960s, the more complex nature of international relations (especially following two World Wars) left the building too cramped to accommodate all the staff. Sir Leslie Martin (1908-2000) drew up plans for a sprawling Modernist redevelopment, suggesting demolition of most of Whitehall’s Victorian buildings. Fortunately, there was a huge public outcry (along with a lack of budget), followed by a Grade I listing by Historic England in 1970 protecting the building for future generations. In the ’80s and ’90s, the building underwent a £100 million restoration, with Wyatt and Scott’s beautiful Victorian features being brought back on show. Today, the office is generally off limits to the public, but usually takes part in Open House London every September (which is when I got to look inside).
- Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Building, King Charles Street, Whitehall, Westminster, SW1A 2AH. Nearest stations: Westminster or St James’s Park. For a virtual tour of the Foreign Office, visit the FCDO website.
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