‘A Place Necessary for Everyone’ by Leo Hollis

‘A Place Necessary for Everyone’ by Leo Hollis

Standing in front of the Serpentine Gallery, looking northwards towards the Bridge, the road curves eastwards and in the space beyond stands The Magazine - today the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.

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From this view one is looking at a landscape that has been in constant transformation for over 300 years. This scene reflects the changing topography of the Park - royal gardens, a landscape for military parades, site for patriotic celebration, revolutionary anger, and as the city’s recreation grounds - in addition to the metropolis that now surrounds the Park’s perimeter.

In this short stretch of ground, one can read a remarkable history that takes in the fears (not once but twice) of a nation facing invasion, and the preparations for war; the meeting place between Royal splendour and popular politics; the blurred boundaries between the city and the countryside: the forcing ground of experiments in the aesthetics of the Picturesque; the Great Exhibition that displayed the wonder of the Industrial world in 1851; and a former tea house that today shows the finest contemporary arts. Through this scene winds a lake, the Serpentine, which was sculpted in the 1730s by Queen Caroline and has been the site for mock battles and victory celebrations, Olympics sports, public activities and Christmas Day traditions.

The two buildings - the Serpentine Gallery and the new Serpentine Sackler gallery- complement each other, albeit from different eras: one an interwar pleasure house, the other a picturesque villa from an earlier time. Both places highlight the joys of being in the Park, of exploration and unexpected discovery; places to be chanced upon by happenstance or a final destination. The bridge that spans the short distance between the two is a theatre that interweaves history, art and adventure.

1. War

‘Preparations are making for erecting in Hyde Park a magazine of gunpowder much more extensive than the present one. The building is intended to stand in the nook between the northern bank of the Serpentine River and that part of Kensington Gardens which projects in the form of a half-moon. The basement will be formed of stone, and the upper parts of brick.’

So announced the “Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure” in October 1804. At the time London was in a panic. The 1802 Treaty of Amiens with Napoleon had not brought peace but a pause between wars as each side prepared for the next bout. Throughout 1803 the Duke of York had predicted a French invasion upon the southern coast of England; and the whole nation had done their best to be alert.

An army of reserves was mustered to bolster the standing army; militia from around the country were called to arms and drilled into readiness. In London, every company and guild rallied to the flag, each with their own officers and badges so the city itself resembled ‘an immense garrison’. Throughout the year, troops had been garrisoned at Hyde Park, on the western fringes of the city, and here had practiced their drills. On 26 October, the King George III - along with 50,000 spectators - had watched 27,000 volunteers marching through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

Further afield, across the southern coast, simple stone defences –  Martello Towers and forts -were built to defend the beachheads; a system of telegraphs organised to warn the capital of the invasion. If the French made it onto land, there were plans for naval stockades across the Thames; an evacuation policy for all livestock and foodstuff that might aid the invaders. If they ever got as far as London itself, they would not find the city gates open to them. In Parliament, the former Prime Minister William Pitt, rebuked his opposite number who called for calm by saying ‘while they have 80,000 seamen on board their fleet and have such an army as is now on foot, it [is] necessary to fortify the capital’.

Up to this point a gunpowder store had stood in the Park, as drawn by Paul Sandby in 1790, in a bucolic scene within a glade, encircled with wandering cows. The capital had another powder store at the Tower of London, to the east; but as the speaker of the House of Commons pointed out, this store sat directly underneath the Record Room and just a spark threatened ‘the most ancient records of England’. So it was decided to construct a new, and safe, Royal Military Depot within Hyde Park.  The architect for the Pavilion was never noted down, although some have suggested that it may have been James Wyatt, who was Surveyor General at that time. The plans that today sit in the National Archives were signed by Hugh Debbieg, the high ranking general in charge of the royal engineers based in the Naval port of Chatham. He was responsible for all the naval defence building along the coast.


2. The Magazine

It was to be a modest, simple single-story building, constructed in brick to denote its purpose. Set as a symmetrical square with two main rooms on the east and west, that were later named as ‘the storekeeper’s office’ and, to the west, a ‘shifting room'. The southern facade was sparsely decorated to give the impression of a rural villa in the neoclassical style, with three bays in creamy Portland stone. Perhaps the most elaborate feature of the whole building was the guttering with hopper heads dated 1805, with the Royal cypher.

The first person to work there was a Mr Walter, whose day-to-day tasks were defined by parliamentary act. In return for £100 a year, and an added £12 expenses for ‘candles and coal’, he was expected to guard and keep dry all gunpowder and ordnance stored within. He was also charged with refusing entry to strangers or drunks and to ensure that no iron tools or instruments are used near the site that could cause a spark, and to maintain the fire fighting equipment. Visitors to the store were requested to take off their shoes and put on ‘magazine pumps’ so as not to cause a fire. His daily employment was arduous:
‘It was a situation of hard work, incessant attention, and requiring the most perfect steadiness and sobriety.  . . part of it consisting in separating the serviceable from the unserviceable powder with a copper shove, and this without help.’


3. The Serpentine

Nine years later, in 1814, England was nearing the end of the long war with Napoleon and in April the French emperor had been defeated and sent into exile. However, Britain was fighting a new war against the United States and in August that year Rear Admiral George Cockburn had sailed up the Potomac River and razed Washington D C to the ground. This aggression would have after effects felt in Hyde Park as Mr Croker, of the Admiralty, requested that a ‘strong oak post railing’ be put around the park to make it safe against any American invasion. After some questioning, the Admiralty concluded that it was unlikely that American frigates would even venture as far as the Serpentine by any route, especially as the original source of the lake, the Westbourne River, had been blocked off seventy years before.

Nonetheless there was much activity on the river that summer as it became the location for a series of celebrations to mark the end of the European war. The lake itself had been created seven decades earlier by Queen Caroline, wife of George II, in an attempt to compete with Louis XVI’s Versailles. Caroline envisioned yacht racing, dolphins and sea horses to ornament her bucolic scene; yet all she got in the end was a lake, painstaking designed to appear naturalistic, named the Serpentine, but completed with only one curve in finished design. According to the London Gazette: ‘"Two hundred men were employed on the work. A dyke or dam was thrown across the valley of the Westbourne, and with the soil dug out of it was raised a mound at the south-east end of Kensington Gardens, on the summit of which was placed a small temple, revolving on a pivot, so as to afford shelter from the winds’.


4. The Bridge

The lake itself divided the royal grounds of Kensington Palace from Hyde Park to the east. Once royal hunting ground, the parkland had been used by Londoners since the reign of Charles I as a place for fashionable display, sports, and even duelling, as well as regular martial exercises. Since the 1790s, the more formally laid out Kensington Gardens had been closed to most traffic except at the weekends, between spring and autumn, when a small entrance fee allowed only the respectably dressed inside, banning even liveried servants and dogs. By the end of the decade the Palace became the home of the young Princess Victoria.

It was not until the 1820s that the carriage way was built that created a new boundary line between the Park and Royal Gardens. This was part of widespread renovations to the park at the hands of the architect Decimus Burton, on behalf of the Royal Office of Works, who made his own improvements to the Magazine and worked with John Rennie on the Serpentine Bridge that crossed the water in front of the building. The road itself was created by James McAdam, the inventor of Tar Macadam (Tarmac).

Decimus Burton was the son of the hugely successful builder speculator, James Burton who had made his fortune putting up houses in Bloomsbury and elsewhere. He had given his son his first commissions, creating the impressive Cornwall Terrace and Clarence Terrace as part of John Nash’s plans for Regent’s Park in 1821. Four years later he was hired by the Office of Woods and Forests to work on Hyde Park, bringing a regal touch to the southern edge, today Hyde Park Corner. In particular he created the positively grandiose Wellington Arch and austere neoclassical screen to connect Green Park with Hyde Park.


5. A Tasteful Classical Building


His work on the Magazine itself was on a less opulent scale. Nearby he also designed the Receiving House of the Royal Humane Society, ‘a tasteful classical building’, designed for the storage of safety equipment and the recovery of people from swimming accidents in the waters. The society also ran a number of boats and watchers to make sure that the swimmers were safe; in winter the same watchers observed the iced lake for the safety of skaters. The footman William Taylor swam here regularly in the 1830s and counted ‘347 [bathers]; therefore I should suppose there is about 15 or 16 hundred men and boys in the Serpentine on a Sunday morning.’ 

Work on the Magazine went hand in hand with the development of the Serpentine Bridge. The southern facade of the main building faced out towards the head of the bridge, forcing the road to curl around the perimeter wall. The bridge itself was a signal of the changing shape of the park as the city started to engulf the park that was no longer at the urban fringes, but becoming subsumed by the urban expansion westwards. As London grew, Hyde Park was no longer the outside but - in the words of Prime Minister William Pitt - the ‘lungs of the city’.

John Rennie, who worked with his brother George on the Serpentine Bridge to replace the former crossing and cascade, was the son of the leading Scottish engineer who had practised in London since the 1790s and was responsible for the designs of Waterloo, Southwark and London Bridges. The bridge itself, completed between 1825-8, is constructed in Bath Stone, of five broad arches. Rennie would later become the engineer who worked with Stephenson on the Liverpool to Manchester railway.

The crossing received mixed reviews when it was completed. For some it represented the extent of rapacious urbanisation that had now reached impossible extremes, devouring the farmland that has once stood around. For another correspondent to the Times: ‘The impropriety of a bridge of such magnitude and cost, thrown over a piece of water so obviously a mere pond held up by a dam must occur to every reflective mind.’  Nevertheless it soon became the only visible dividing line between Park and Gardens, which slowly melded into a single place of retreat for the city. Here the metropolis, art, politics and the people mixed in ever-eddying configurations.

It is significant that the view from the Serpentine Bridge towards the city is considered one of the most important in London. In recent proposals to preserve the historical beauty, The London Plan, the view from here towards the world heritage sites at Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, must not be disrupted by new, tall buildings. The addition of the new structure to The Magazine, the Serpentine Sackler building designed by the world-leading architect Zaha Hadid brings this panorama up to the present, showing how the architecture across the centuries is embedded within the landscape.


6. Industry and Empire

As the Park became circumscribed by the surrounding city that was described by William Cobbett in the 1820s as ‘the Great Wen’ or sewer, so London became a theatre for many different urban dramas, a new kind of meeting place for the modern pleasures of the industrial city at the heart of a burgeoning Empire. Here the fashionable walked along Rotten Row every morning, taking the cleaner air, to get away from the bustle of urban life, and perfected the metropolitan art of watching others and of being watched. This was given added impetus in 1851 when Hyde Park became the promenade for the whole world as millions visited Joseph Paxton’s crystal palace at the heart of the Great Exhibition.

Following the royal opening on May 1, over 6 million people wandered the glass and steel halls constructed out of 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, 900,000 square feet of glass and 600,000 feet of wooden planking, 202 miles of sash bars and 30 miles of gutters. The Park thus became the showcase for the Industrial Revolution and cabinet of wonders for the English Empire.

Yet the exhibition was not just the temporary  of heavy manufacturing and ingenious works. Here also the finest of English arts were set alongside the latest inventions in everything from steam powered machinery, daguerreotypes and even an early telegraphic fax machine. A W Pugin displayed his own explorations in Gothick within the medieval Court, as well as a myriad of artworks and sculptures from across Britain and around the world. The 1851 exhibition also laid the foundations to Albertopolis, the collection of museums, colleges and universities that were set along Exhibition Road after the Crystal Palace had been dismantled.

In contrast to the pleasure seeking crowds of the Great Exhibition, the open spaces of Hyde Park were also a public forum for political protest. In 1855, Karl Marx wrote following the anti-Church Movement demonstration in the Park, that ‘the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park’. The Reformer Tree within the park soon became a rallying point for the Chartist movement until it was burned down in the 1866 protest by the Reform League. The charred stump remained a symbol for free speech, and by 1872 Speaker’s Corner was designated as a place for open-air rallies and speeches.

As time has gone on, the Park has increasingly taken on the identity of the people’s park, a place to come together. In August 1918, four years into the First World War a war shrine was set up at Hyde Park Corner and over 200,000 people came to pay their respects. The suffragettes held numerous meetings here to call for the vote for women. The park was also the final destination for the thousands of London labourers who marched on May Day each year and in 1932 was the arrival point for the hunger marchers from the North  who walked to the capital to protest about work condition and jobs at the beginning of the Great Depression. Celebrating the liberation of Europe after World War Two, it was reported that the quieter corners of the park had become a ‘vast battlefield of sex’ as joy overflowed. In 1969 the Rolling Stones played a free concert to nearly 500,000 fans. (When they played in July 2013, they charged a minimum of £99).


7. A Place to Meet the Unexpected

The Park has consistently been a laboratory of social ideas and unexpected admixture. Here in Kensington Gardens, the eighteenth century garden designer William Kent planted a dead tree in his pursuit of a ‘natural’ landscape.  The parkland itself is the ideal setting for art that both celebrates martial glories - such as Achilles statue by Richard Westmacott near Hyde Park Corner to record the Duke of Wellington’s victories - or places of public memory such as the Albert Memorial, the Diana Memorial Fountain and the newly opened memorial to the victims of the July 2005 bombing.

In addition, the park has been the setting for contemporary work such as Henry Moore’s Arch that now stands beside the Serpentine, close to the Magazine; Anish Kapoor’s ‘The World Upside Down’ 2010-11; and Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s ‘Rock on Top of Another Rock’ that balances in front of the Serpentine Gallery itself and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s tribute to Diana Princess of Wales.

The Gallery itself was originally a 1934 tea room, that was possibly built on the site of Price’s refreshment Lodge, later called the Cake House, that once offered a cornucopia of ‘syllabubs, Pigeon-pie puffs and cheese cake’. Designed by J. Grey West, chief architect for the His Majesty Office of Works, it was a pavilion with a large central room for well to do sippers, close to the river that still remains popular with swimmers all year around. In 1932 the Daily Mail even reported that the Police were to patrol the lake, as certain women had been reported for wearing ‘flimsy swimwear’ that was beyond the bounds of decorum.  

In 1970, Labour Minister for works, John Silkin, called for the Tea House to be converted into a gallery for contemporary arts and run by the Arts Council. From the outset it was an exciting place, open through the summer months, committed at the beginning to show only artists under 35, staffed by fellow artists. It immediately gained the support of significant British artists, such as Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Craig-Martin and within five years started to show international artists such as Jasper Johns and Brice Marden. The gallery not only explored new artists but also showed curated exhibitions for sculpture, video, performance, painting, photography and graphics.

In 1991, Julia Peyton-Jones was put in charge of the gallery, and was determined to continue the tradition of the gallery being a meeting place for contemporary arts,  but a place “necessary to everybody, not just the art world”. By the Millennium, the gallery also became a location for architectural speculation with the launch of the first Pavilion commission by Zaha Hadid. The project was originally a temporary structure for the 30th anniversary Gala but this developed into an annual architectural exploration, introducing the work of a world-renowned architect who had not built in the UK before.

In 2001, the Pavilion was designed by Daniel Libeskind, and following that commissions have come from Toyo Ito, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, Rem Koolhaas with Cecil Balmond and Arup, Frank Gehry, SANAA, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Mueron and Sou Fujimoto.

In 2006, Julia Peyton-Jones invited Hans Ulrich Obrist as co-director of exhibitions and programmes. Before this Obrist had been curator at the Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Obrist has been instrumental in making the gallery an international meeting place by curating the Serpentine Marathons that have run every year since 2006. In that first year Obrist and the architect Rem Koolhaas conducted a series of interviews with leading figures from across the all walks of culture, philosophy, science and art over 24 hours. Subsequent events have included the Manifestos, Poetry; Maps; the Garden and Memory.

In 2009 the Royal Parks agreed for the Serpentine Gallery to bring the Grade II* listed 1805 Magazine building, which since 1963 had been given over to the Park’s maintenance depot, into public use for the first time. Preserving the exquisite original building in its unique setting, the new gallery also includes an extension that flows along the west side of the building, designed by Zaha Hadid, nestling into the landscape but visible from the Serpentine Bridge. The new exhibition space will expand the Serpentine Gallery’s programme of exhibitions, restaurant and social space.

The new gallery is named after Dr Mortimer and Dame Theresa Sackler, whose foundation has made the project possible through the largest single gift received by the gallery in its history. Major funding was also awarded by Bloomberg in its continued relationship with the organization.

The new gallery is a place that has been at the centre of a fascinating history for over two hundred years and with the opening of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery once again establishes itself as one of the crossroads of the city. It is a place where history and the present meet, where the finest in contemporary arts can be encountered within the landscape of one of London’s most beautiful parks. This truly is a meeting place for everyone, a forcing ground of ideas, inspiration and culture. 

© Leo Hollis 2013
Leo Hollis is an urban historian and author of The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London; The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings and Cities Are Good for You.


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The Magazine Powder Room pre-renovation

The Magazine Powder Room pre-renovation


Serpentine Sackler Gallery wall drawing

Zaha Hadid Architects

Serpentine Sackler Gallery Design Circle

Serpentine Sackler Gallery Design Circle

Serpentine Sackler Gallery at night

Serpentine Sackler Gallery at night

The Magazine entrance

The Magazine entrance

Serpentine Sackler Gallery entrance

Serpentine Sackler Gallery entrance

Serpentine Sackler Gallery approach from Serpentine Bridge

Serpentine Sackler Gallery approach from Serpentine Bridge

The Serpentine Galleries and Magazine

The Serpentine Galleries and Magazine

Serpentine Galleries; © 2013 John Offenbach