The British Ambassador’s Residence in Vienna opened in 1875. It has the distinction of being one of the earliest buildings constructed for that purpose which remains in use as a British Ambassador’s Residence.

view of a work of art in a grand room

Thomas Lawrence’s 1813 portrait of Lady Nugent on display in the British Ambassador’s Residence, Vienna © Crown Copyright

In his own words, Leigh Turner, the current British Ambassador to Vienna, takes us on a guided tour of the Residence to tell its fascinating story (and why he’s so #keenonWien).



Rococo Revival

The Residence owes its existence to the efforts of Sir Andrew Buchanan, who was appointed as British Ambassador to the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1871. Finding soon after his arrival that the then-residence in Herrengasse was to be sold by the landlord, he managed to persuade the Foreign Office to purchase a plot of land on the estate of the Metternich Palais, now the Italian Embassy, 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 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, though more restrained than much contemporary architecture 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 restrained. The entrance doors, set off centre, open into a carriageway which led into a courtyard and stable yard at that time. The stable yard is now the Residence garden.

exterior view of a building

Exterior view of the British Embassy & Residence, Vienna © Crown Copyright

With the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the Embassy was downgraded to a legation. Much of the silverware was transferred to the British Embassy in Brussels in 1921 and most of it was returned to Vienna only in the 1950s. None of the original 19th century furniture survives, although many of the gifts from other ambassadors or 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. At the end of the Second World War it was re-purchased by the British government (at the 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.

GAC in Vienna

The Residence in Vienna has an outstanding selection of GAC artworks which raise the quality of the building from a beautiful historic palace to a crucible of Austro-British relations. The Residence is a shared resource between three British diplomatic missions in Vienna (bilateral, UN and OSCE) and the city’s role as a diplomatic and transport hub means we stage numerous international conferences. Art from the GAC inside the building highlights the UK’s diplomatic history and international status as a cultural centre, enhancing the status of the building and adding weight and stature to events taking place there. The building, the embassy and the UK’s image in the diplomatic hub which is Vienna would be diminished without it.

‘Moments of pause or recollections of loss’. Edmund de Waal’s Vienna.

Metamorphosen I, a work by Edmund de Waal installed in the Residence in 2017, symbolises the coming together of art, diplomacy and history. The genesis of how this important and unique work came to be in the residence is set out in my blog post of November 2018.

view of a work of art on a staircase

Metamorphosen I by Edmund de Waal installed in the British Ambassador’s Residence © Crown Copyright

Edmund De Waal’s moving memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, describes the fate of his family in Vienna after the Nazis seized power in 1938; he was later invited to curate an exhibition During the Night at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum which opened in 2016 exploring themes of anxiety, fear of the unknown and terrors of the dark. When I met Edmund at a 2 a.m. reading at the Museum and he offered one of his works on a long loan to the Embassy I was delighted to accept. Metamorphosen I, situated on the stairs where many visitors pause to examine it, often triggers discussion and debate on Austria’s history; the relationship with the United Kingdom; and the role of art as both an instrument and a symbol of cross-cultural engagement. I treasure it and hope it will hang in the residence for many years to come.

How we promote art

interior of an embassy

Untitled by Michael Craig-Martin on display in the British Ambassador’s Residence, Vienna © Crown Copyright

Art and culture play an immense role in the life of Vienna and particularly in the lives of the senior Austrian stakeholders with whom we work day-to-day on everything from the future of the UK and the European Union through to trade, investment and security issues. We therefore work closely with the GAC and the British Council to ensure we use art and culture, including in the residence, to actively to promote the UK’s status in Austria. Our activities can range from supporting a J. M. W. Turner exhibition in Gmünd to highlighting links between Portugal, Britain, Vorarlberg and Tacita Dean – a narrative which also highlight the qualities of another of the fine works of art at the residence in Vienna, Thomas Lawrence’s 1813 portrait of Lady Nugent (see first image, top). The fact that we have world-class art in the residence lends this work weight and authenticity, boosting our outreach and influence across the Austrian system.