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History of the Department

Classics on the Strand

Department of Classics, exteriorThe Department of Classics currently occupies a set of buildings at the north-east edge of the Strand Campus, on the corner of the Strand and Surrey Street, facing Bush House to the north and St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice to the east. Only one of these buildings (number 169 Strand) was purpose-built for College use, in 1928-30; the other two, 170 and 171 Strand, are early twentieth-century commercial blocks that were incorporated into the Campus since the World War II. The classical connections of this location go back rather further!

The Marbles take shelter

Aldwych MarblesDirectly underneath the Department of Classics, running between 169 Strand and Surrey Street, stands Aldwych (formerly Strand) Underground Station, now decommissioned and used mainly for filming (e.g. Death Line, Atonement, Prince Caspian). It was down here, in the tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn, that a large part of the Parthenon sculptures were placed for safe keeping during World War II, emerging only in 1948.

Theatres & panoramas

Before the tube station was built in 1905-7, the exactly equivalent site was occupied by a theatre, opened in 1832 as Rayner's New Subscription Theatre, and subsequently known both as the Strand and the Royal Strand. Among the many kinds of show produced over the seventy years of the house's life was a line of classical burlesque, represented for example by William Brough's Pygmalion, or The Statue Fair, which played in the spring of 1867. Before the theatre, the site was occupied by a panorama house, Reinagle and Barker's New Panorama, which opened in 1803 with 360-degree views of the city of Rome, from the Villa Lodovisi on the Pincian Hill, and from the Capitol.

Roman BathThe 'Roman Bath'

A hundred metres or so south of 169-171, just off Surrey Street and also within the Strand Campus perimeter, stands the so-called 'Roman Bath', now managed by Westminster Council on behalf of the National Trust. Although it is not in fact Roman, but more likely of sixteenth or early seventeenth century date, it nevertheless deepens and enriches the area's ancient affiliations in other ways.

Arundel & Somerset Houses

Strand Lane, on which the 'Roman Bath' stands, was once the boundary line between two noble palaces of the renaissance and early modern periods, Old Somerset House to the west and Arundel House to the east. The position of the 'Roman Bath' on the east side of the lane makes it likely that it was originally part of an outbuilding on the Arundel House grounds, perhaps a storage-tank or washing-place. And Arundel House is celebrated as the first place in the country where a collection of ancient sculpture and stonework was placed on semi-public display – what now survives in part in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, as the Arundel Marbles. Moreover, even if it is clear now that the 'Roman Bath' cannot be genuinely Roman, it was believed to be such, and advertised as a bathing-place on these grounds, from the time of its rediscovery in the late eighteenth century into the early years of the twentieth.

Reanimating the ancient world

Women bathingThe themes of sculpture and ancient stonework link the 'Roman Bath' and Arundel House to the Elgin Marbles' period of residence in the Aldwych tube tunnels. At the same time, the desire to believe in the 'Roman Bath' as a genuine ancient survival, connecting modern bathers with Roman Londoners of the time of Vespasian, chimes with the other ways in which the ancient world has been dreamed of and recreated in imagination in the area, successively in the Panorama and the Royal Strand Theatre (not to mention the printing and publishing houses with which the Strand used to be lined). The fact that all of this has taken place in the same angle of Surrey Street and the Strand as is occupied now by the Department of Classics at King's makes our current home a peculiarly appropriate one.

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