Home from Home: Decorating The Linnean Society

This month, Archivist Alex Milne looks back on how all the homes of The Linnean Society were decorated and furnished over the years using newly catalogued material from the Domestic Archive.

Published on 30th May 2023

In January 2023, The Linnean Society redecorated the main staircase with a selection of prints from our collections. The display draws on our rich holdings of drawings, prints and specimens, and brings together items from across the catalogues. Concurrently, we have been working to catalogue the vast Domestic Archive. This collection is made up of the papers created in the founding, running and day to day activities of the Society.

In the spirit of the staircase project, I have been looking through the building papers and Society receipts to find out more about how we have developed and decorated our buildings over the years.

Handwritten receipt from 1801 for bookcases
Receipt for Mahogany bookcases and shelves for 10 Panton Square (DM/OPS/1/2: item 14)

The surviving receipts of the Society give us many hints as to how rooms changed as the Fellowship and the Library expanded. Some of our earliest invoices are for necessary building improvement to protect our collections such as bookshelves and cases for specimens. These would have been specially made for the Society and the rooms they occupied at any given time.

The Society had several early homes and each had to be outfitted appropriately to support the Fellowship and staff. No 9 Gerrard Street required all kinds of renovation, from bricklaying and tile repair to taking down the decaying plaster work and “scraping and repairing to wash house & privy” [1]. All this was finished by painting and papering the rooms to create a functional, yet welcoming place for Fellows to occupy. Descriptions of window sashes, “base molding and plinths to the pilasters side of front door” [2], and paintwork in “Oil French Grey” [3] are quite the contrast to the current building: a supermarket in China Town.

Receipts and notices of repairs are sometimes the only records we have of what the early homes of the Society, like 10 Panton Square, would have looked like, now that it is long demolished. We have few drawings and photographs of many of our early premises and mostly these are of the front face of the building, rarely the inside. 32 Soho Square is the exception to this.

Black and white drawing of a room inside 32 Soho Square
Drawing of the interior of 32 Soho Square (Source Unknown)
Black and white drawing of a room inside 32 Soho Square
Drawing of the interior of 32 Soho Square (Source Unknown)

Our records of renovation and decoration for Soho Square are limited. The house had originally been home to Joseph Banks and, upon his death, the leasehold was left to Robert Brown, then the Society’s Librarian. Brown subleased rooms to the Society and it’s possible that further documentation relating to the maintenance of Soho Square may have once existed in his private papers.

Handwritten receipt for painting and decorating Linnean Society rooms
An Estimate of Painter's Work of 32 Soho Square (DM/OPS/1/5: item 119)

A receipt for painter’s work does provide a basic building set up including attics, several floors and a basement. All of these required sprucing up: “Ground Floor. Wash and Whiten Library Ceiling and paint woodwork in Transaction Room” [4].

When the Society moved into its current Burlington House space in 1873 the rooms were outfitted for convenience and protecting the collections. Over the years many of the historic items of furniture survive because most were built to last. A lovely example of this is our Herbarium and Insecta Cabinets, originally built to store the specimens and now repurposed to hold the Society’s Domestic Archive.

Large wooden cupboard in background with black and white photograph of the same cupboard held in foreground
The Herbarium (c.1940’s?) before renovation and in 2023 during cataloguing work.

Burlington House provided a new, and somewhat opulent, clean slate for the Society, and the input of Fellows has added to the personality and history of the Society's furnishings over the years, such as subscriptions for a storage room for the Linnaean Collections, numerous paintings spread across the Society’s rooms, the Library clock donated by previous Librarian Gavin Bridson or Sir Frank Crisp's many donations including the Meeting Room table. However, despite the guise of extravagance, a series of letters between The Linnean Society and Royal Society hint at the thrifty nature of our decorating skills. A letter offering the Society a “large guilt chandelier” in 1857 is followed by a receipt in a separate file paying the Royal Society £15 for it. The same file of letters also contains details of a hefty redecoration of the then Council Room (now the Library Annexe), including carpets from Harrods, and drafts for a set of chairs decorated with the Society coat of arms, but it also includes letters to other institutions like the University of London in 1938 asking to obtain any bookcases they no longer require.

Letter from Royal Society offering chandelier to Linnean Society
Letter from the Royal Society asking if The Linnean Society wishes to purchase a large guilt chandelier. (DM/OPS/2/1/18: item 6)
Receipt for chandelier
Receipt for £15 for the chandelier from the Royal Society (DM/OPS/4/1/19: item 8)

Of course, every day we welcome more and more guests, Fellows, researchers and visitors alike and from the very beginning we have aimed to provide them with a comfortable and welcoming space. This is reflected in the archive through the sundries such as the records of heating and ventilation throughout the building but also in the records of carpets, curtains, and fittings. More people will always lead to general wear and tear - receipts for covering seats in “the best American leather” [5] show how we have aimed to keep Burlington house a smart and practical place to visit without losing too much of its historic charm. These records can also provide a window into what happened to furnishings that were disposed of during redecoration such as an “old gas-fire” donated to the Science Museum [6], a slice of wallpaper saved from one of the many refurbishments, and even ideas that never came about such as a proposition for “speaking tubes” in 1872 [7].

Pieces of wallpaper
Section of wallpaper removed from the hallway of The Linnean Society's Burlington House residence in 2011. No origin date. (DM/OPS/5/2/1/16)

There are any number of stories the Domestic Archive will open up to readers and it’s important to note that despite my focus on the buildings we have inhabited, so many of the records come back to the people who have been a part of that journey. This is showcased perfectly by several documents relating to the decoration of the Library. For example, we have correspondence surrounding a memorial plaque to Librarian Edwin Riseley, a rifleman who died in 1917 aged 27 and who’s Latin inscription still hangs in the Library today [8]. We also have paperwork relating to the retirement of previous Librarian Gina Douglas, which includes plans for another plaque, this one is written in Greek with the inscription, “If it is there, they will find it” [9]. Both are reminders that it has always been the Fellows and Staff that have shaped the Society’s home, wherever that may be.

Referenced Archival Material

  • [1] (DM/OPS/1/4: item 40)
  • [2] (DM/OPS/1/4: item 61)
  • [3] (DM/OPS/1/4: item 42)
  • [4] (DM/OPS/1/5: item 119)
  • [5] (DM/OPS/2/1/18: item 26)
  • [6] (DM/OPS/2/1/2)
  • [7] (DM/OPS/2/1/2)
  • [8] (DM/OPS/3/6: item 323-347)
  • [9] (DM/OPS/3/27)

Please note that these are provisional numbers and subject to change as cataloguing continues.