A view of part of the Linnean Society’s reading room

Doing Burlington dirty

The Government’s attempts to hound five distinguished learned societies from the prestigious premises created for them in Mayfair is a disgrace

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Recently I have been investigating the history of a Swedish herbarium. Happily for me, the glory of all Swedish herbaria — formed by the eighteenth-century botanist, Carl Linnaeus, as he systematically classified the vegetable kingdom — is in London, having been acquired after his death by the English scientist, Sir James Edward Smith. This precious and fragile collection, now more than two centuries old, is meticulously preserved in a temperature-controlled vault under Piccadilly. The Linnean Society of London, which owns it, is one of the five learned societies occupying the Victorian wings of Burlington House, either side of the Royal Academy. My visit to this herbarium filled me with both wonder and rage. Wonder because it exemplifies the role that private scholarly associations (and anyone who pays the subscription) have played — and continue to play — in Britain’s intellectual life.

Rage because for some years the government has set this achievement at naught, in its determination to impose a market rent for its tenants in Burlington House.

Obviously, a prestigious site in Mayfair looks a highly desirable investment and a hedge fund, oligarch or casino would pay royally for a lease. But the capital is not only composed of commercial organisations: it is the cultural heart of the nation, enriched and adorned by art galleries, concert halls, museums, libraries, places of learning and numerous other institutions that are more appropriately located in their historic surroundings, where they can be easily visited, than scattered in cheap premises on the outskirts of towns, as is the case with many county record offices.

Yet the government appears intent on hounding the Linnean Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Geological Society of London and Royal Astronomical Society from the premises created specifically for them between 1868 and 1873. The rent of the Society of Antiquaries has risen 4,000 per cent from £4,800 in 2012-13 to £200,000 today. Now the Society can neither afford to stay where it is, nor pay the £3 million costs of moving to new premises that it would seek to buy.

I confess a prejudice. I like the Victorian atmosphere of these institutions. The heavy decoration of the entrance halls instils an appropriate sense of gravitas. Double height libraries, the galleries fronted by paired scagliola columns in the case of the Antiquaries, the walls closely lined with erudition, are conducive to study.

Outwardly these are not lively places. Deep carpets and mahogany fittings seem to engender a sepulchral hush, broken only by whispered conversations with the librarian and the rustle of card indexes being searched. Architecturally, little has changed since these sacred halls were designed by R.R. Banks and Charles Barry Jr.

Why should it? These are among the finest interiors of their time. Let’s celebrate their preservation. Anyone can visit if they have an appointment or belong to an affiliate such as the Royal Archaeological Institute.

Beneath the surface, though, much has been happening. In Oxfordshire, the Antiquaries own Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’s home and one of the most attractive of all country houses to visit which will this year reopen after a major restoration.

Ironically, plans to create a new museum in the basement of Burlington House cannot be pursued because of the tussle over the rent, according to John Lewis, the Antiquaries’ General Secretary.

This has been going on now for a decade or more. At one point, the combined Societies offered £28 million (part of it from items presently on permanent loan to national collections being taken under the Treasury’s in lieu procedure) to buy a long lease; this was rejected.

The attempt to maximise rent from these venerable and distinguished tenants is inappropriate

The attempt to maximise rent from these venerable and distinguished tenants is inappropriate. As the MP Tim Loughton said in opening a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament on 21 June, “the societies are not the sort of luxury retail emporia to be found in other parts of Piccadilly”. They are charities.

Furthermore, the conditions of their lease limit their ability to raise more income. Not only do the terms prohibit subletting or commercial activities such as cafés, but by preventing third parties from taking a charge on the properties, funding bodies cannot give grants. By an unfortunate historical accident, Burlington House comes not under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport but the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, headed by Robert Jenrick, who is sweating the assets in line with the Treasury’s Green Book rules. At the Westinster Hall debate, Jenrick’s deputy, Eddie Hughes, emphasised the department’s determination to keep the learned societies where they are, while maintaining the policy that makes that impossible.

Presumably he expects the societies to generate revenue through visitor numbers. More could no doubt be done to increase public access but the relentless drive to increase footfall, in the manner of museums, galleries and the National Trust, would change the character of the institutions. They are not primarily visitor attractions.

Dating from 1807, the Geological Society is not only the oldest of its kind in the world — a tribute to the enterprise of British geologists in the nineteenth century, who colonised geological time with names such as the Devonian and Cambrian periods — but an active part of today’s scientific community. Accountants can put a figure on its contribution: £26 million of public benefit a year, which hardly takes account of the intangible value of so long and august a tradition.Linnaeus’s herbarium isn’t simply an historical artefact but a living tool for scientists who study the constant evolution of species, not least under the stimulus of climate change. Samples are taken for genome sequencing.

Imagine that the societies moved out. Who would want to lease a vault designed for the preservation of an herbarium?

Perhaps the Society of Antiquaries, whose mission is to further “the study and knowledge of antiquities and history,” is not in this position. But among the artefacts, books and works in its possession are many treasures, including three early copies of Magna Carta and the monument of English medieval art known as the Lindsey Psalter. To force the Society to sell its treasures to pay the rent would be plain wrong.

Imagine that the societies moved out. Who would want to lease a vault designed for the preservation of an herbarium? The Linnean Society would be compelled to build another vault, no doubt using public funds from the Lottery and elsewhere. Perhaps the Treasury would be slightly better off as a result but the exercise would demonstrate a moral void at the core of public policy-making.

Britain is supposed to be a proud champion of the knowledge economy. At Burlington House, the government itself would have dethroned the learned societies from the conspicuous position to which they were elevated by our forefathers. The government’s response to mounting public pressure has been to offer the societies a deal. The lease will be renewed for a five-year term during which the rent will increase at a slower rate than before.

That is a small mercy but does not address the problem of rents that, over a short period, have already become impossible for some of the Societies to bear, or guarantee a future in which further rapid increases are out of the question.

Sir David Attenborough has written to Boris Johnson asking him to intervene. What is the point of having an Etonian prime minister if he does not put his cultural depths to the service of the country and stop this barbarism in its tracks?

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