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Hyde Park by Decimus Burton

Hyde Park by Decimus Burton

The Main Entrance to Hyde Park at Apsley Gate taken from Wellington Arch platform

Introducing Decimus Burton

Decimus Burton is possibly the most important contributor to the development of Hyde Park in its entire history and in fact the best of his work there is still with us today, almost 200 years later – like the imposing Apsley Gate Entrance, the magnificent Wellington Arch, both at Hyde Park Corner, and the overall layout of the park itself.

Born in 1800 his career took off at the age of just 21 after he had designed the first villas and terraces in Regents Park and this led to his appointment to totally rejuvenate Hyde Park three years later – a hugely challenging project for such a young architect.
 Decimus Burton – Copyright H.Sheehan.

Decimus (or DB as he became known much later on) quickly developed an outstanding reputation and within a few years was recognized as the foremost British architect and urban designer of the 19th century, and certainly set industry standards throughout his long career.

The Household Cavalry returning to Knightsbridge Barracks through Apsley Gate

Later major design projects included work at two further Royal Parks (Green Park and St James’s), the Palm House and Temperate House at Kew Gardens, Athenaeum Club, the London Zoo, Chatsworth Conservatory, Phoenix Park in Dublin and significant urban developments at the English seaside towns of St Leonards-on-Sea and Fleetwood, and the spa town of Tunbridge Wells.

DB was a prolific designer and developed plans for literally hundreds of other houses, estates, clubs, schools, hospitals, churches, spas, gardens and monuments, and many other types of buildings, both in London and across Britain. Time for even a couple of lighthouses!

DB was particularly recognized for his versatility in working with different architectural styles including Roman and Greek Revival, Georgian Neo-Classical and Regency.

Hyde Park Briefing in 1824

In 1824 DB was selected as the architect for the entire plan of rejuvenating Hyde Park and was fully briefed by Charles Arbuthnot, the recently appointed Commissioner of Woods and Forests in George IV’s reign.

Wellington Arch taken from inside Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner

Hyde Park itself had been in a terrible state for years although it was still attracting considerable crowds. In fact maintenance of the park had been totally neglected and it had consequently suffered greatly from endless military reviews and celebrations (also billeting), major leaking sewage from the Westbourne stream and roaming cattle still being allowed, complete with cow sheds and even milk on sale to park visitors, straight from the cows!

In contrast Kensington Gardens was in a “well manicured shape”, as it reported directly to the Lord Steward who ensured the park was always maintained for the benefit of the Royal Family members living in the Palace.
Wellington Arch and Hyde Park Corner at Dawn

The brief for Hyde Park to DB was concise but ambitious in terms of comprehensively upgrading the park to restore its condition and able to handle the increasing number of visitors.

Meetings between King George IV, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and Charles Arbuthnot had also agreed the need for Hyde Park “to match the splendour of rival European capital cities”, particularly in view of its proximity to Buckingham Palace. (In this context King George very much liked DB’s design for the new Main Entrance on Hyde Park Corner and personally approved it!)

DB’S Overall Implementation Plan

Arbuthnot accepted DB’s proposed strategy of enhancing the countryside feel of Hyde Park with additional drives, pathways and bridle trails, with long vistas as opposed to it resembling anything like a municipal park. DB was also keen to develop a dignified and unified park character which would certainly require some extensive structural work.

Cumberland Gate Lodge at the north end of Hyde Park

Specifically DB recommended new railings round the boundaries of the park to replace the dilapidated brick walls dating from the 1600s, installing stylish new wrought iron gates, adding pathways and bridle trails, designing and building a series of four distinctive Gate Lodges – Cumberland, Stanhope, Grosvenor and Hyde Park plus two major constructions in the form of a striking new wide Entrance at Apsley Gate and a Tribute Arch to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s victory over the French at Waterloo, both on Hyde Park Corner.

One of DB’s earliest actions was to arrange for the Achilles Statue behind Apsley House (and also in honour of the Duke of Wellington), to be re-positioned to make it a major focal point from the planned new park entrance at Hyde Park Corner.

All of the rejuvenation work was required as soon as possible and, once approved, DB duly delivered the complete package in a little over four years, by 1830. It was certainly a considerable task.

Riding on Bridle Trail in NE Hyde Park

The Government was delighted with the results of DB’s rejuvenation project, with Hyde Park looking spectacularly transformed and also under new efficient management.

DB’s two main creations, the Apsley Gate Entrance and Wellington Arch remain very much part of London’s architectural and historical profile – and surely forms Decimus Burton’s main legacy to the nation. (Wellington Arch is often described as “one of London’s best loved landmarks”)

Later Projects for DB in Hyde Park

In 1830 DB was asked to upgrade the Grenadier Guards Magazine, close to Magazine Gate (and now the Serpentine North Gallery), to make it more appropriate for storage of new gun powders and other munitions like grenades.

Then in 1846 DB was briefed to design and build a fifth Lodge at the Prince of Wales Gate on Kensington Road – in fact this ultimately involved building two identical Lodges, one East and the other West, to make the best use of the significant space available, which was to prove invaluable in 1851 when it became a major visitor entry point for the Great Exhibition.

The Carrara Marble Arch was moved from Buckingham Palace to the north end of Hyde Park
Also, in 1851 a more complex request to DB came directly from Queen Victoria to develop an alternative enclosure to the Buckingham Palace forecourt which also involved moving the Carrara Marble Arch commissioned at great expense (over 8 million pounds at today’s value!) by George IV, in 1820, from the Palace to a totally new location. So DB developed a plan to move the Arch to the NE corner of Hyde Park, close to the Cumberland Gate Lodge, at the confluence of the four main roads there, which the Queen quickly approved and that area soon became known as Marble Arch.

Incidentally, it took over three months to complete as it involved a painstaking “stone-by-stone” removal and transfer!
Back of Hyde Park entrance taken from Rotten Row

What About Decimus Burton the Person?

Born in 1800, Decimus was the 10th child of James Burton (Decem being Latin for 10) who was London’s premier property developer in the 19th century, and reputed to have been responsible for over 3000 new buildings in central London through his company. He had a major influence in guiding Decimus’s career in his early days as did John Nash, another famous British architect who worked closely with James Burton.

With his family background and working contacts Decimus was soon moving in London’s top society circles, which included close relationships with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, The Duchess of Kent, the Duke of Devonshire, Sir Humphry Davy and Sir John Soane amongst others. DB designed the clubhouse of the famous Athenaeum Club building which was certainly one of London’s grandest gentlemen’s clubs – and as a founding member (and bachelor!) he spent much of his leisure time there.

The Main Entrance to Hyde Park taken in the lushness of early Summer
DB was very well liked by many and seen as” rich, cool and well dressed – his modesty, politeness and upright bearing were enduring, and his integrity and professional competence were worthy of the greatest respect”.

He never married and lived in St James’s and Tunbridge Wells, moving on retirement to Kensington and St Leonards-on- Sea in 1869.

Decimus Burton died in 1881 at the age of 81 and was buried at the historical Kensal Green Cemetery in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, alongside his brother Henry and sister Jessy. DB’s tomb is in the form of a Sarcophagus (stone coffin) made from grey Cornish granite with a pyramidal cover – which was listed in 2001.
The Park “signature” on the Apsley Entrance Gate at Hyde Park Corner

_*Text and photographs by Harry Reid
Member of ‘Friends of Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens’* __

  • …IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT DB*

The Decimus Burton Society held its inaugural meeting at The Society of Antiquaries in May 2018 and since then has attracted the support and membership of many academics, architects, institutions, organisations and Burton home-owners to name but a few. Its main aims are to:

*Create a central resource point of material related to Burton and his work, with links to material elsewhere.

  • Hold talks relating to Burton and his work
  • Arrange visits to Burton-designed buildings, places and landscapes.
  • Look to publish research into Burton and his period.
  • Encourage students and others to study and appreciate Burton’s work.

If you would like to learn more about the Society, or become a member please review their website at: www.thedecimusburtonsociety.org

Contact Paul Avis-Chairman with any questions

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