William Lake Price, The Reading Room under construction, a photograph

London, England, AD 1855

An albumen print of the building in progress, looking north

Sir Robert Smirke (1781-1867) designed The British Museum building around an inner courtyard, laid out as a public garden. However, the garden did not thrive and various proposals were submitted for the reuse of this space. In 1854, work began on the construction of a new Reading Room and surrounding bookstacks, the successful proposal of Antonio Panizzi, the Museum's Keeper of Printed Books and Principal Librarian (Director) from 1856.

Designed by Sir Robert's brother, Sydney Smirke (1798-1877), the Reading Room took three years to build. It was a masterpiece of mid-nineteenth century technology, using cast iron, concrete, glass and the latest heating and ventilation systems. He was proud of this project and asked for record photographs to be taken:

'The intricate and complex scaffolding, and the works in progress in the Quadrangle now present an appearance so picturesque and, I think so remarkable that I am induced to suggest whether the Photographer to the Museum might not be employed to obtain a record of the appearance of the works at intervals during their progress.'

This photograph by William Lake Price (1810-96) shows the iron framework of the Round Reading Room almost completed. On the right, behind the tall ladder, is the exterior wall of the original corridor connecting the Main Entrance Hall to the Reading Room. On the far left, below the window, is one of the two original entrances to the North Wing from the inner courtyard. They were never used for public access.

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More information


P.R. Harris, A history of the British Museu (London, The British Library, 1998)

P.R. Harris, The Reading Room (The British Library, 1979)

M. Caygill and C. Date, Building the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Height: 247.000 mm
Width: 290.000 mm

Museum number

Archives CE114/149


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