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The Residence building owes its existence to the efforts of Sir Andrew Buchanan, appointed British Ambassador to the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1871. Finding that the then-residence in Herrengasse was to be sold by the landlord, he persuaded the Foreign Office to purchase a plot of land on the estate of the Metternich Palais, and to construct a new house for the sum of 275,000 florins. Victor Rumpelmayer, an Austrian born in Pressburg (now Bratislava), was appointed architect. He later also designed the Anglican Christ Church opposite the Residence (for which permission had to be obtained from Emperor Franz Josef) which was originally part of the then much larger plot of land.
The exterior of the house is in the classical style, but more restrained than other architecture in that style in Vienna, such as the Parliament, or many of the grand houses on the Ringstrasse. The interior decoration, though often described as Viennese Rococo Revival, is similarly less grandiose. The entrance doors, set off-centre, opened into a carriageway that led into a stable yard, which is now the Residence garden.
With the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the Embassy was downgraded to the lower diplomatic ranking of a legation. Much of the silverware was transferred to the British Embassy in Brussels in 1921, and returned to Vienna only in the 1950s. None of the original 19th century furniture survives, although many of the gifts from other ambassadors or from the Habsburg royal family are still displayed today. A notable example is a portrait of Emperor Franz Josef, which he presented to Sir Horace Rumbold, 8th Baronet, on his retirement as Ambassador to Austria in 1900.
After the Anschluss in 1938 the house was sold to the National Socialist Flying club. It was eventually purchased back by the British government at the end of the Second World War, at the same price received for it in 1938. It had suffered much damage from bombing and neglect. One bomb went through the roof and into the main stairwell, but luckily did not explode. The interior of the Residence was restored with considerable imagination and is now considered one of the finest British diplomatic residences worldwide. The exterior of the house was restored in 1992.
Director of the Government Art Collection, Penny Johnson talks about her visit to the Embassy in Vienna to install a work by the artist Edmund de Waal
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