Bonn to Berlin: an Embassy’s Journey

The story of not just one but three British Embassies in Germany and the art that has been displayed in them.

An atrium showing two works of art

'Dancing Columns' a sculpture by Tony Cragg and behind 'Wall Drawing (for the British Embassy)' by David Tremlett can be seen in the atrium at the British Embassy, Berlin © image: Crown Copyright

The Residence of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to West Germany, Bonn

Ian Hamilton Finlay's sundial installed in the front garden in 1979

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s commissioned Sundial transformed the front garden in 1979 © Crown Copyright

The Residence of Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Bonn was originally built in 1904 for Fraulein Johanna Cappel by the architect H. Plange of Wupperta l-Elberfeld. Its architecture combined Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and classical elements. Having changed hands multiple times, the building was requisitioned in 1945 and used by the American Forces as a transit camp. It then became the Residence of the American High Commissioner Mr McCloy.

The Ministry of Works bought the building for the British Government in 1952, and after a period of improvements it became the British Ambassador’s residence in 1955. More development ensued, with the demolition of the detached tea house to make way for a dining room, in 1960, and an extension to the kitchen and staff quarters in 1973. The small Aubusson drawing room was converted into a library in 1978, and in 1979, while Sir Oliver Wright was in post as Ambassador to West Germany, the front courtyard was redesigned to accommodate a sundial by British artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay. The 1980s saw further renovation projects, with the restoration of the main guest bedroom to its original oval shape and the paving and replanting of the forecourt. In 1989, the music room was refurbished and redecorated. The installation of Albert Irvin’s painting Nightsong (1970) determined the colour scheme devised by Katrina Black for the music room.

Art on Display

Works of art on loan from the Government Art Collection were integral to the life of the building throughout its function as an ambassadorial home up to 1999. The selection was renewed with every change of ambassador, who typically remained in post between two and six years. This did not mean changing all of the art, but some. And considering the size of the place, this involved quite a few hanging locations: from the front garden, to the entrance hall, library, drawing room, oval room, dining room, music room and even the staircase.

17th century portrait of a young boy with red silk around him

Sir Godfrey Kneller’s painting of James Vernon (1667-1756) as a Boy, c. 1690-7 © image: Crown Copyright

Stone sculpture of a boy's head

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Head of a Boy, 1912 © image: Crown Copyright

A three-quarter view of a woman with her eyes closed, wearing ornate make-up and Byzantine-style dress

Vanessa Bell, Byzantine Lady, 1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Two chairs and a stool with cushions

Kenneth Armitage, Two Chairs and a Stool, 1948 © Jonathan Clark Fine Art / Estate of the Artist

The British Embassy, Berlin

About its history and buildings

In 1876, Lord Odo Russell, the first British Ambassador to a united Germany, acquired the former Palais Strousberg at 70 Wilhelmstrasse to serve as the embassy. The subsequent history of the building was marred by the political instability and nature of British-Germanic relationships in the early 20th century. The Second World War resulted in the destruction of the building by RAF bombs on 22-23 November 1943.


A black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the British Embassy in Berlin taken in 1935

British Embassy, 70 Wilhelmstrasse c. 1935 © Crown Copyright

A black-and-white photographs showing the rubble of the destroyed British Embassy in 1954

Destroyed British Embassy, 70 Wilhelmstrasse, April 1954 © Crown Copyright

At the outcome of the War, Berlin was a divided city. The British Consulate-General re-established itself at 7-8 Uhlandstrasse, in West Berlin. The German Democratic Republic, which covered East Germany, was formed in October 1949 with East Berlin as its capital. Diplomatic relations between the UK and East Germany, however, were not established until 1973.

The reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 was ratified by the 20 June 1991 ‘Resolution on Completion of German Unity’, whereby the Bundestag voted to move the seat of government back to Berlin. Britain was one of amongst 150 embassies which elected to make the move from Bonn to Berlin. Plans were made for a new purpose-built embassy in the old capital on the former plot at 70 Wilhelmstrasse. On 21 October 1992, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a plaque there recording her visit to “the site of the future British Embassy to Germany”. The design of this building was still to be determined. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office held an international architectural competition in 1994 through to 1995. Submissions were restricted to British architects who had experience working in Germany, and German architects who had experience working in the UK.

The contract went to Michael Wilford and Partners whose proposal sought to symbolise not only cooperation between Germany and the United Kingdom, but also “openness”, with a striking post-modern façade. The British Ambassador moved from Bonn back into full diplomatic residence in Berlin on 3 September 1999, the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. The new Embassy officially opened on 18 July 2000 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh.

You can read ‘An introduction to the art on display in the British Embassy in Berlin‘ on the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website.

exterior of a building

The British Embassy Berlin © Crown Copyright

light sculpture in a cloakroom

Depositing a bag in the cloakroom becomes an artistic experience with the presence of Peter Sedgley’s kinetic sculpture. Peter Sedgley, Flambeau, 1999 © Peter Sedgley

work of art in a large atrium

Turning the World Inside Out by Anish Kapoor, Stainless steel sculpture, 1995, in the atrium at the British Embassy, Berlin © image: Crown Copyright