When it was founded, in 1824, the Athenæum broke the mould.  The original members of this new kind of non-partisan club, with its close connections to the learned societies, were elected on the basis of their achievements rather than their background or political affiliation.  The club was to serve as a meeting place for artists, writers and scientists, along with cabinet ministers, bishops and judges.  Today influential men and women, drawn from a wide range of professional fields, are still attracted to a club which nurtures civilised conversation and companionship and access to a great library and high-quality cultural and social events.  The last quarter century has witnessed the reinvention of the club which broke the mould two hundred years ago.

The club’s original members included the engineers who created the infrastructure of the railway age.  Their successors were the inventors of radar.  With a tradition of hospitality to conflicting views, akin to that of the liberal arts and sciences, the club attracted most of the leading writers and artists of the nineteenth century.  Dickens and Darwin were elected on the same day in 1838.  It was in their palatial clubhouse in the West End of London that the Darwinians crossed swords with the bishops and where later generations of members held confidential conversations in wartime on the use of propaganda.  The club has recruited not only intelligence chiefs but also, unwittingly, the most infamous spy of the Cold War.  In 1928 the Athenæum was described in the Graphic as ‘the brainiest club in the world’: it certainly was a hundred years earlier and probably still is today.

John Wilson Croker, the club’s founder, was an MP, First Secretary to the Admiralty, a leading figure in literary circles and a moving spirit at the Union Club.   A true blue Tory, he insisted that the founding committee should contain a majority of Whigs.  Croker knew everyone who was anyone and ensured that the most outstanding creative thinkers joined his new literary club ‒ ‘literary’ in the broadest sense.  Croker and his committee asked the architect Decimus Burton, still in his early twenties, to find them a temporary clubhouse in 1824.  A few years after moving into 12 Waterloo Place, the members could look out of the windows to see Burton’s permanent clubhouse being built nearby, on the corner of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall.  The site had become available after the demolition of Carlton House, a royal palace.  (The club inherited some of the palace’s wine cellars.)  When the new clubhouse opened in 1830 members were stunned by an interior which lived up to the Grecian exterior, with its statue of Athena by Edward Hodges Baily and its famous frieze, based on the Parthenon in Athens.

Passing through the high glazed doors, members and their guests find themselves in the Hall.  Burton’s purpose was to adhere to the classic taste, to achieve the impression of unity, harmony, simplicity and proportion in the Grecian manner.  The original floor, a Venetian pavement, was constructed of particles of marble set in hard cement, or scagliola resembling Sienna marble, rubbed down and polished.  The warm and carpeted effect of this delicately coloured floor was complemented by the scagliola columns, imitating white marble, that support a Roman barrel-vaulted ceiling, richly coffered.  Croker and Burton agreed that the Staircase should be graced with a hand rail in the best spanish mahogany, with classical detailing.  The stairs are naturally lit from a large skylight – an invitation upward from the darker Hall under its Roman ceiling – and they divide beneath a large cast of the Apollo Belvedere by George Rennie RA, which Burton donated himself.  Installation of the Apollo proved to be difficult, however: Sarti’s bill for ‘busts etc’ included the sum of £3.10.0, ‘For taken down & putting twice the Apollo and altering four times the leaf’. Leading off the balcony, where the visitor can see the club’s Nobel Book, containing details of the 50 prize-winning members, is the Drawing Room, one of the most charming in London.

Burton’s aim was to achieve a grand, massive and severely simple outline, in the tradition of the Greek Revival.  The furniture, of the kind that was approved for a library in a grand private house, was of his own design.  Burton divided the room into three harmonious sections – a square at each end and an oblong in the middle.  Such a long room also had a practical advantage in a club that tried, but occasionally failed to exclude bores: it provided the only protection against ‘the person who is eloquent upon affairs, either Foreign or Domestic, the member who sleeps and snores, the man descended from John de Boreham, or the victim afflicted with the complaint called the “Grumbler”.’

In his plans Burton labelled the Drawing Room the ‘Library’, although many more of our capacious collection of books are gathered in the South Library off the grand drawing room and visible through a glazed door.  This is the club’s holy of holies, a silence library in which Macaulay, Matthew Arnold, Thackeray, Trollope and Bishop ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce once wrote, and where books are still being written today.  Nearby are two other smaller library spaces, designed as book-lined cubes.  Here meetings are held, competitive bridge played and private dinners consumed.   In this clubhouse, shelving for books has always had precedence over space for pictures, some of which are gathered in the Picture Room on the ground floor.

The Athenæum also has a Morning Room on the ground floor, where drinks are served at lunchtime and in the evening and a Smoking Room on the second storey where smoking is forbidden.  Recently renovated, the Smoking Room provides a comfortable second drawing room, in a clubhouse which now uses all its public rooms to accommodate numerous events.  On this floor and the floor above are bedrooms for members.

The atmosphere and purpose of this unique club were captured in an essay by Yehudi Menuhin:

The wonderful thing about the Athenæum is the setting it offers for productive leisure: the spaces between duties, the borderlines between people, where, perhaps, only antennae become aware of another presence: in silence or behind the protective shield of a book or a newspaper.  Then, in conversation, cross-fertilisation occurs quite naturally as the blissful fulfilment of an effortless higher duty – to the future, to our fellow men, colleagues, society.  Interest in and information about the most disparate subjects ensue.  These are precious fruits which grow from a harmony of differences, a plurality of uniquenesses, if I may invent so unlikely, yet so democratic, a word.
 
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