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Burlington House: Linnean Society of London

The world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788, the Society takes its name from the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus whose botanical, zoological and library collections have been in its keeping since 1829.




1660s onwards.

Burlington House, Piccadilly W1J 0BF

Sat 10am-5pm. Last entry 4.30pm.

Green Park, Piccadilly Circus


14, 19, 22, 38

  • Partial disabled
  • Regularly open to the public at no charge

urlington House: Linnean Society of London

A brief history of Burlington House and information on the Meeting Room and Library

The Linnean Society of London occupies a unique and prestigious location on Piccadilly, and is one of the five Learned Societies occupying the Courtyard of Burlington House.  As well as providing a home for its collections and a handsome location to host meetings and events, the Society has always offered the wider academic and amateur communities access to these Rooms, recognising this as a contribution towards communication and exchange of ideas in the biological sciences.

The Society moved into Burlington House in 1857 to occupy part of what was the town house of the Boyle family.  This was originally built for Lord Burlington by Sir James Denham, surveyor of the works to Charles II, and was visited by Samuel Pepys in 1668.  Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington (1695-1753), put on a new south front and added an Italianate colonnade with archway entrance to the front courtyard.  The House passed to the Duke of Devonshire in 1753 and he built the Burlington Arcade on adjacent land.

In 1854 the House and gardens were purchased by the Government and in 1856 the Royal Society, the Chemical Society and the Linnean Society were permitted to occupy the rooms as a result of a Memorandum by Earl Rose, President of the Royal Society, recommending that the Government provide accommodation “under one roof” for the Learned Societies, this was supported by Prince Albert. However, the Rooms in Burlington House were seen as a temporary measure. In 1867 the Government leased the main building to the Royal Academy of Arts and allocated £20,000 for provision of new apartments for the Learned Societies in purpose-built wings around the courtyard.

The architects for the Learned Society Rooms were Messrs. Banks and Barry, and the Linnean Society moved into its new rooms in 1873. The accommodation was designed to meet the Society’s requirements and consisted of a Meeting Room on the ground floor, a Library and Council Room on the first floor, with accommodation for the Secretary in an apartment at the top, and rooms for a porter in the basement.  The section immediately adjacent to the archway entrance was originally occupied until 1904 by a post office, of which only the elaborate wooden post box remains.

In 1969 the building was redeveloped to incorporate a climate controlled vault for the Linnaean Collections, which still form the key source for identification of plants and animals worldwide.  The changes also provided new office accommodation (using the old post office).

The Meeting Room, with an oak display bench engraved with Linnaeus’ signature flower Linnaea borealis, has retained its original character while providing modern audio-visual facilities.  Refurbished in its original period style, much effort has been made to retain its historical atmosphere.  The Meeting Room is in frequent use both for Society meetings and conferences, and also by a number of other biological societies.

Portraits include past Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Secretaries such as Robert Brown, George Bentham, Sir Joseph Hooker, Sir John Lubbock and Walter Percy Sladen.  Particularly notable is the original painting of Charles Darwin by John Collier.  It is now partnered by a specially commissioned posthumous portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Papers by Darwin and Wallace were presented to the Society in its former accommodation in Burlington House.  The room in which that meeting took place in 1858 has been renovated by the Royal Academy.

The main staircase also has a selection of portraits, and leads to the Library Reading Room, on the first floor.  This occupies the main Piccadilly frontage and is in the form of a double cube, its classical pillars rising to the roof.  These are not supported by any similar structures beneath, the weight of the books being carried on the walls.  The rectangular form of the room has been adapted to fit the offset angle with Piccadilly, the depth of the double-glazed windows accommodating the widening angle. The height of the Reading Room provides two galleries, the lower having a balustrade with bookcases behind, the upper footway being held by cast iron brackets.  The post-war wire-mesh glass roof lights were recently replaced with replicas of the original engraved glass panels.

The Society houses the Linnaean Collections, including specimens of plants, fish, shells and insects as well as Linnaeus’ library and letters, in a climate-controlled vault.   Tours of the Society’s rooms and collections are available, by appointment, through the Librarian.  The rooms of the Linnean Society are also available to hire, more information is available at www.linnean.org.