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1847 J.B. Bunning and the Coal Exchange Model

When the Summer Exhibition opened to the public on Monday 3 May 1847, The Athenaeum described it as representing a young and confident British art scene, more original than the continental academies.1 The architectural community, however, regarded their portion of the exhibition with indifference. Citing the notable absence of key public building projects, The Builder protested to the profession that the progress of its art during the past year was poorly represented.2 The Athenaeum, meanwhile, complained that the exhibited works were weak, with a particularly poor showing of architectural models.3 As an explanation, The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal proposed that the deadline to submit entries for the competition to design the Army and Navy Club held that year—competitions being an important feature of the nineteenth-century architectural scene—had hindered many architects from submitting work to the Summer Exhibition, even though (like today) it was the most prominent yearly exhibition of contemporary British architecture.4

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Although a majority of the submissions to the Academy display featured churches and railway buildings, there were a number of public buildings exhibited. One of these public buildings was a model of the (new) Coal Exchange in the City of London designed by James Bunstone Bunning (1802–1863) (Fig. 1). The Coal Exchange is one of only five surviving examples from the ninety-nine architectural models exhibited at the Summer Exhibition during the nineteenth century. At the time, critics were unconvinced of the model’s ability to accurately depict the proposed building. In particular, The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal noted that the Coal Exchange’s Italianate style, “promises to be a novelty, but the model itself is such a mere toy as to size … that it is impossible to judge of more than the general shape of the structure”.5

Appointed Clerk of Works to the City of London in 1843, Bunning was responsible for designing and supervising the construction of all new buildings and infrastructure on behalf of the Corporation of London. Prior to this appointment, Bunning held several part-time institutional surveyorships, whilst primarily being engaged in a series of fairly typical projects for a Victorian architect, which included surveying existing buildings as well as designing schools, churches, and alms houses.6 Under the terms of his appointment with the Corporation, however, any private practice was now prohibited.

Between 1835 and 1848, Bunning exhibited seventeen times at the Royal Academy Exhibition—a rate not uncommon amongst his contemporaries. Unlike his peers, however, on seven occasions Bunning exhibited architectural models (see Table 1). Two of these models were designs for open competitions, the House of Parliament and Royal Exchange, which prohibited the use of models by competitors and relied on drawings to communicate ideas. These models were made after the competition process from a relatively resolved design for the purposes of exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Clients in particular institutional building committees would have been aware of Bunning’s practical abilities in preparing specifications, calculating costs, and running a building site. Through demonstrating his architectural abilities with projects presented in the form of models, the most legible form of architectural representation to the untrained, Bunning was promoting the artistic aspect of his work within the confines of the Summer Exhibition.

Date Exhibited


Location Exhibited




Council Room

“Model of a building design for the Cheltenham Hospital”



Council Room

“Model of the receiving-house in Hyde Park”



Council Room

“The City of London School”




“A model of the design submitted for the New Houses of Parliament”




“Model of a design, made in 1841, for rebuilding St. Peter’s Church, Cambridge”




“Model of a design for a Royal Exchange, submitted to the Gresham Committee in 1839”




“Model of the new coal market to be erected at the corner of St. Mary-at-Hill, in Lower Thames street, as approved by the Court of Common Council”

Now on display in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Architecture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the model was carved in plaster at a scale of 1/8 of an inch to one foot and fixed to a wooden base. At this scale, the model is a well-detailed representation of the building with corner entrance and tower, two wings in a neoclassical style, with a glazed dome above. There is some evidence of the building’s location in the City: the model-maker has planed the timber base to represent the topography of the slope that ran down St Mary-at-Hill to the Thames. Ignored in the model’s form, however, is the way in which the building sat on the edge of a larger urban block that defined the need for two strong street façades and a deep plan that was lit naturally from the glazed dome. Within the model, glass is used to represent this domed glass atrium. Other than that, no other element of the building has been differentiated with another material.

The model’s purpose has previously been unclear: the finished building featured façades composed of six bays rather than the five depicted on the model. This discrepancy has lead previous scholars to suggest that the model is a “design model”, which was used by the architect to quickly test ideas in three dimensions.7 This is unlikely. First, there was no model-maker directly employed within the City of London Works Department. The model’s intricate carving demonstrates that it was made by a specialist model-maker with skill, time, and care. Further evidence is supplied by a series of ground-plan drawings of the site, which reveal that between 1845 and 1847, the design committee approved the purchase of surrounding buildings to allow the new Coal Exchange to occupy a larger portion of the site.8

Following this evolution, the model represents a five-bay design for the site without any of the additional properties that were purchased after the Summer Exhibition. This version was superseded when a further bay was added to fit the enlarged site boundaries. This adaptation should not be seen as unusual. Within contemporary architectural discourse, the word “model” held wider meanings. The term not only meant physical objects but also artistic precedents from domestic and continental buildings and their translation into contemporary architecture. In addition to the act of artistic translation, the model of the Coal Exchange demonstrates how contemporary architects adapted their designs to changing economic and legislative conditions.

In this episode, we see multiple aspects to the role of architectural models in the period and their presence in exhibition rooms. Similar to today, nineteenth-century architects did not directly advertise their services and instead relied on social connections, publications such as monographs and journals, and public exhibitions. At the Summer Exhibition, architectural models were the most legible medium through which architects demonstrated their artistic and professional services to a wider audience. These models also had a performative role, as a testimony and proxy for proposed buildings and the political authorities responsible for procurement. Bunning’s model is the design as approved by the Corporation and presented to both the artistic community and the wider public at the Summer Exhibition. Later the model was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during the building’s ceremonial opening (Fig. 2).9 It is also clear, however, that the model is not the building. It will always be a representation and one that was adapted to the economic and legislative context of nineteenth-century London.

  1. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 8 May 1847, 494.↩︎

  2. “The Architecture Room at the Royal Academy”, The Builder, 15 May 1847, 225.↩︎

  3. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 22 May 1847, 554.↩︎

  4. “Royal Academy Exhibition: Architecture”, The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal, June 1847, 174.↩︎

  5. “Royal Academy Exhibition: Architecture”, 174.↩︎

  6. For an account of Bunning’s life, see Bridget Hembree, “Designing Victorian London: The Career of James Bunstone Bunning, City Architect”, (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2015).↩︎

  7. Phillip’s, 1985. Collectors’ Items. Auction catalogue, lot 47A. 6 February 1985, London; London, Royal Institute of British Architects, Drawing Collection, MOD/BUNN/1.↩︎

  8. “Plan X”, approved by committee in April 1845, depicted the site of the previous Coal Exchange and six surrounding properties to be purchased for the project. Eleven months later, Bunning presented a second plan to the committee, “Plan Y”, that featured a larger proposed building, which required fifteen surrounding properties to be purchased. In June 1846 an Act of Parliament authorised the rebuilding, and negotiations began to purchase the fifteen parcels of land that were requisite for enlarging the site. Following the committee minutes, these negotiations continued until April 1847.↩︎

  9. “Royal Visit to the City”, Daily News, 31 October, 1849, 5; “Royal Visit to the City”, The Illustrated London News, 31 October, 1849, 292.↩︎

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