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January 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1414

The Society of Antiquaries

In the happy days before the pandemic, when crowds streamed through the archway of Burlington House on Piccadilly, London, few people intent on visiting an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) stopped to look closely at the handsome classical façades surrounding its forecourt. These buildings are part of a remarkable Victorian campus devoted to art, historical scholarship and science, of which the RA is only a part. In the east wing, to the right as one enters the courtyard, are the premises of the Geological Society of London and the Royal Society of Chemistry; in the west wing are the Linnaean Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London. These are venerable institutions with international reputations for scholarship: the Linnaean Society, for example, is the world’s oldest active society devoted to the study of biology – named after Carl Linnaeus, it dates from 1788 – and the Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1707 for the study of the material remains of the human past. At the moment, however, it is the future of the societies that concerns them, as it has begun to seem increasingly likely that after 140 years they will have to leave Burlington House.

Most readers of The Burlington Magazine will be familiar with the Society of Antiquaries and its long record of scholarship, either in the form of lectures and conferences at Burlington House or through the Antiquaries Journal, which dates back (under its original name, Archaeologia) to 1770. Many of our readers and contributors are among the 3,000 or so Fellows, elected on the basis of their scholarly distinction. Although the threat to continued residence in Burlington House is shared by all the learned societies, it bears with particular force on the Society of Antiquaries, which cannot call on the financial resources directed towards research in the sciences and relies for its income largely on the membership dues of its Fellows. The society is responsible for maintaining a research library and collection of international significance, which include the three earliest known copies of Magna Carta and Tudor and later portraits. It also owns William Morris’s country house, the Elizabethan Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, which was bequeathed to it by Morris’s daughter May, and it has a wider charitable remit to formulate public policy on the care of the historic environment and cultural property in Britain.

To understand the society’s current predicament some historical background is necessary. Burlington House was purchased by the Government in 1855 for academic or cultural purposes. In 1867 the RA moved here from the National Gallery’s building in Trafalgar Square. Burlington House was already occupied by the Royal Society (which departed for Carlton House Terrace in 1964) and the Linnaean and Chemical societies. In 1873–74 they were joined by the Antiquaries and the Geological and Astronomical Societies, which – at the request of the Government – had vacated their purpose-built premises in Somerset House. They were provided with accommodation in buildings surrounding the forecourt of Burlington House designed by Banks and Barry. The cost of both erecting the buildings and their maintenance was borne by the Government and the societies were allowed to occupy them free of charge. An exception was made for the RA, which in return for shouldering the cost of rebuilding and maintaining its premises was granted a 999-year lease at a peppercorn rent. As a result, it has been spared the financial conundrum that now faces the learned societies.

Discussions about the legal basis on which the societies occupied their premises were initiated by the Government in 1994 but it was not until 2004–05 that it sought a court ruling to settle the matter. As a result, the Government offered leases for an initial term of ten years at a non-profit rent, with an option to renew every ten years, up to a maximum of eighty years, when it would arrive at a market rate. This was agreed, as a result of which the Government paid for the repair of the buildings. Problems arose as a consequence of Government accounting policy changing in 2014. Burlington House now began to be treated as an investment property and in 2016 arbitration confirmed that the Government’s formula for setting the rent was legal. Since the market value of property in the West End had increased dramatically since 2005, the rent for the Society of Antiquaries leapt from £4,800 per annum in 2012–13 to £150,000 in 2018–19 – a rise of 3,100 per cent. Recognising the severe problems this posed, the Government offered to peg the increase to 8 per cent per annum (compound) for five years, but, as the Society has pointed out, the rent would remain unaffordable since within thirteen years it would double.

The obvious solution, to move, is in itself exceptionally expensive, given the nature of the Society’s possessions, even if suitable affordable premises could be found within a reasonable distance of its current home. Having exhausted legal arguments, the Society has had to throw itself on the mercy of the Government (in the flinty form of the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government) and has launched a campaign to try to sway public opinion in its favour.(1) In some ways the need to argue that it serves a public benefit and does not, as might be assumed, exist only to serve its Fellows has been good for the Society, which increasingly sees itself an educational charity. It has done a great deal to improve its outreach, in the form of public lectures, exhibitions and loans of works in its collection and has increased public access to its premises. It has also initiated a major restoration project at Kelmscott Manor that will greatly enhance the house’s potential for education.

Given the hard-nosed view of the situation taken by the Government to date, the Society is relying on an independent assessment carried out by PwC in 2019, which estimated that it delivers an annual total gross value to the public of £5.4 million, of which 78 per cent (£4.2 million) would be at risk if the Society was forced to leave Burlington House. A financially catastrophic pandemic is not an ideal time to be asking the Government to forswear income by coming to an arrangement that would allow the Society to remain. On the other hand, it is up to the Government to say what it would do with the premises if the learned societies leave. They are listed Grade II*, so the opportunities for major changes are small, and almost the only plausible new use would be as commercial offices. However the pandemic is almost certainly going to lead to severe depression in the commercial rental market and so the Government’s assumption that the value of the lease will float ever upwards is probably wrong. At least its most recent statement on the matter is newly emollient: ‘we’re sympathetic to the societies’ position and are exploring whether there is a solution that can deliver value for taxpayers and help the societies to remain at New Burlington House’, but it remains to be seen whether it is capable of seeing ‘value for taxpayers’ in more than monetary terms.

1. See, accessed 15th December 2020.