The first home of the British Museum, Montagu House was originally built on what is now the site of the museum in Great Russell Street for courtier and diplomat Ralph Montagu, the 1st Duke of Montagu (among other titles), in the late 1670s.
The Bloomsbury property, which was designed by Robert Hooke and had both French and Dutch influences, had a central block and two service blocks built around a courtyard and featured murals by the Italian artist Antonio Verrio and wall paintings by Frenchman Jacques Rousseau.
In 1686, only a few years after it was completed, the house was gutted in a fire. But the duke had it rebuilt to the designs of French architect Pierre Pouget. It featured a prominent Mansard roof, had interiors created by French artists and formal, much admired, French-inspired gardens (see picture).
In the early 1700s, the 2nd Duke, John Montagu, relocated to the then more fashionable district of Whitehall where he constructed a more modest residence which was later replaced with a mansion.
In 1754, the now neglected Montagu House in Bloomsbury was sold to the trustees of the British Museum and both the gardens and house were restored. The museum, which was officially founded by an Act of Parliament in 1753, opened to the public in the property on 15th January, 1759, with free entry to “all studious and curious persons” (the gardens had opened two years earlier).
The collection was initially based on that of physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (see our earlier post here), who has bequeathed the 71,000 objects he had collected to King George II (in return for a payment of £20,000 for his heirs).
Montagu House remained the museum’s home until it was replaced by the current museum building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, which was completed in 1850s.
PICTURE: Wikipedia/James Simon c 1715