Burlington House

Coordinates: 51°30′32″N 0°8′22″W / 51.50889°N 0.13944°W / 51.50889; -0.13944

Burlington House is a building on Piccadilly in London. It was originally a private Palladian mansion, and was expanded during the mid 19th century after being purchased by the British government. The main building is at the northern end of the courtyard and houses the Royal Academy, while five learned societies occupy the two wings on the east and west sides of the courtyard and the Piccadilly wing at the southern end. These societies, collectively known as the Courtyard Societies are:

  • Geological Society of London (Piccadilly/east wing)
  • Linnean Society of London (Piccadilly/west wing)
  • Royal Astronomical Society (west wing)
  • Society of Antiquaries of London (west wing)
  • Royal Society of Chemistry (east wing)

Burlington House is most familiar to the general public as the venue for the Royal Academy's temporary art exhibitions.


The house was one of the earliest of a number of very large private residences built on the north side of Piccadilly, previously a country lane, from the 1660s onwards. The first version was begun by Sir John Denham in or just after 1665. It was a red-brick double-pile hip-roofed mansion with a recessed centre, typical of the style of the time, or perhaps even a little old fashioned. Denham may have acted as his own architect, or he may have employed Hugh May, who certainly became involved in the construction after the house was sold in an incomplete state in 1667 to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington, from whom it derives its name. Burlington had the house completed.

During 1704 the house passed to the ten year old Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who was to become the principal patron of the Palladian movement in England, and an architect in his own right. During Burlington's minority James Gibbs made exterior alterations to the house, including a semicircular doric colonnade which was later praised by Sir William Chambers as, "One of the finest pieces of architecture".

In 1717 or 1718, Colen Campbell was appointed to continue the work. This was a key moment in the history of English architecture, as Campbell's work was in a strict Palladian style, and the aesthetic preferences of Campbell, Burlington and their close associate William Kent, who also worked on Burlington House, were to be the leading strand in English architecture and interior decoration for a generation. Campbell's work closely followed the form of the previous building and reused much of the structure, but the conventional front (south) facade was replaced with an austere two storey composition. The ground floor became a rusticated basement, which supported a monumental piano nobile of nine bays. This had no centrepiece, but was highlighted by venetian windows in the projecting end bays. Other alterations included a monumental gateway to Piccadilly and the reconstruction of most of the principal interiors, with typical Palldian features such as rich coved ceilings.

On Lord Burlington's death in 1753, Burlington House passed to the Dukes of Devonshire, but they had no need of it as they already owned Devonshire House just along Piccadilly. The 4th Duke's younger son Lord George Cavendish and a Devonshire in-law, the 3rd Duke of Portland, each used the house for at least two separate spells. Portland had some of the interiors altered by John Carr in the 1770s. Eventually Lord George, who was a rich man in his own right due to a marriage to an heiress, purchased the house from the 6th Duke of Devonshire for £70,000 in 1815. He had some alterations made by Samuel Ware, which like Carr's work were sympathetic with the Palladian style of the house. In 1819 the Burlington Arcade was built along the western part of the grounds.

In 1854, Burlington House was sold to the British government for £140,000, originally with the plan of demolishing the building and using the site for the University of London. This plan, however, was abandoned in the face of strong opposition and in 1857 Burlington House was occupied by the Royal Society, the Linnean Society and the Chemical Society (later the Royal Society of Chemistry).

The Royal Academy took over the main block in 1867 on a 999 year lease with rent of £1 per year. The former east and west service wings on either side of the courtyard, and the wall and gate to Piccadilly, were replaced by much more voluminous wings in an approximation of Campbell's style. These were completed in 1873 and the three societies moved into these. In 1874 they were joined by the Geological Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries.

This arrangement lasted until 1968 when the Royal Society moved to new premises in Carlton House Terrace and its apartments were split between the Royal Society of Chemistry and the British Academy. The British Academy also moved to Carlton House Terrace in 1998 and the Royal Society of Chemistry took over the rest of the east wing.

In 2004 the Courtyard Societies went to court against the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister over the terms of their tenure of the apartments in Burlington House, which they have enjoyed rent-free. The dispute was sent to mediation, after which the following statement was released: "The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Learned Societies had a very constructive meeting on 16 March which envisages the continued presence of the Learned Societies at Burlington House. Discussions are continuing with a view to formalising the arrangement on a basis which is acceptable to all parties."

Public access

The courtyard of Burlington House is open to the public during the day. The Royal Academy's public art exhibitions are staged in nineteenth century additions to the main block which are of little architectural interest. However in 2004 the principal reception rooms on the piano nobile were opened to the public after restoration as the "John Madejski Fine Rooms". They contain many of the principal works in the academy's permanent collection, which predominantly features works by Royal Academicians, and small temporary exhibitions drawn from the collection. The east, west and Piccadilly wings are private.

Building Activity

  • updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via Annotator
  • updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via OpenBuildings.com