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Britain in Seoul: The path to Korean modernity

Fig.4 stone palace by j. r. harding (1898)

Creating surreal pockets of Victorian Britain in the megalopolis of Seoul, the UK played a significant role in the formative years of Korea’s modernisation

British activity in Korea before and during the period of Japanese colonial rule had a profound impact on the country’s early modernisation. The construction of the Stone Palace – the Seokjojeon – in 1910, represented the last effort to save an ailing Korean monarchy, while the formal establishment of Seoul’s Anglican community became a statement of resistance against Japanese subjugation. Following Korea’s independence in 1945, the Stone Palace remains as a testament to the country’s turbulent history, while the Anglican church continues to promote human rights and democracy. The current British Embassy is also still housed in Victorian-era buildings designed to accommodate early diplomatic legations. Though the British presence in Asia must still be seen through the prism of colonial ambition, there is also a growing acknowledgement within Korea of the mutual illumination that this interaction produced, revealing much about the country and its national identity in the formative years of modernisation.

In 1883, the British and Korean governments established diplomatic relations and, the following year, William George Aston was appointed Consul-General in Seoul. He was the first foreign diplomat to reside in Seoul but had to contend with dilapidated Korean houses as his residence and office. Subsequently, FJ Marshall of the British Office of Works in Shanghai designed two buildings for Seoul’s British Legation, completed in 1891 and 1892, in styles more reassuring to its occupants. On a gently sloping site, a large Georgian house on a raised platform was built for use by Ashton’s successor, with an office, library, dining room, four bedrooms and reception hall. An adjacent Victorian-style dwelling housed staff members. Responding to the local climate of humid summers and harsh winters, both buildings had wide verandahs and shared a common material language of red and black brick on concrete footings. The Georgian facade was embellished with a large pediment, four sets of double-arched verandah openings, pilasters and eclectic colonnettes. Its Victorian counterpart was more functional, except for a series of depressed arches that form the openings of the verandah. The two houses still form part of the present British Embassy compound and remain in active use. 

Fig.1 overview duksugung palace seoul

Fig.1 overview duksugung palace seoul

The grandiosity of John R Harding’s Stone Palace forms a discordant backdrop to the remainder of the buildings set within the Deoksugung Palace complex. Photograph by Alfred Hwangbo

From these modest beginnings, the British presence in Seoul assumed a more active dimension. Barely exposed to the modern civilisation of the West, Korea at the end of the 19th century was experiencing severe political conflicts and challenges. In 1895, the Empress Myeongseong, who was considered an obstacle to the expansion of Japan’s Meiji Empire, was assassinated in Gyeongbokgung Palace by the Japanese. Her consort, King Gojong, fled to the Russian Legation in Seoul, remaining there for over a year. On his return in 1897, the new emperor, Gojong, designated Kyungwoon Palace as his main residence, chosen because of its proximity to overseas legations. To impress foreign delegates and the Korean people, Gojong decided to erect a modern palace within the complex. The recently completed British Legation caught his eye.

‘The structure was intended to embody regal grandeur and dignity, yet Harding’s building is intimidating when set against the existing palace’

Gojong commissioned John R Harding to design the new building. Harding’s proposal was a steel structure with brick infill and stone veneer in a Neoclassical idiom. The facade was decorated with Ionic pilasters and a two-storey-high portico with Ionic columns. A Korean plum flower was inscribed in the tympanum as the symbol of the Korean royal court. Large verandahs with balustrades on both upper and lower levels offered undisturbed views of the garden and allowed residents and visitors to experience the atmosphere of the palace compound. Walkways and ground level loggias were designed to better serve the functional demands of the court.

According to a plan and elevation of 1898, the structure was intended to embody regal grandeur and dignity, yet Harding’s building is intimidating when set against the existing palace. In reflecting the demand for a new formal language, in this case an Ionic colonnade and Rococo interior, it created an uneasy atmosphere, which is exactly what Gojong anticipated. Harding’s building was intended to serve the main business of the court, with existing buildings demoted to less important functions. And while the new palace was located off the main axis, it offered more space and modern comforts. Like the British Legation buildings, it had no formal name but was simply referred to as the ‘Stone Palace’.

Fig.6 seoul cathedral north elevation c.1922

Fig.6 seoul cathedral north elevation c.1922

Drawing of the north elevation of Seoul Anglican Cathedral by Arthur Stansfield Dixon, c1922

However, the building is more than its name suggests. In both style and function, it is emblematic of Gojong’s scheme to transform the spatial and structural organisation of Kyungwoon Palace. A grander soubriquet would have been assigned to the new building had Gojong continued to rule and officially open it. But in 1907, before construction was complete, the emperor was forced to abdicate in favour of Crown Prince Sunjong and Kyungwoon Palace was renamed Deoksugung Palace, its current nomenclature. 

Following the annexation of Korea by the Japanese in 1910, Gojong secretly sought political asylum abroad. His attempts proved fruitless and he was killed by poison in Kyungwoon Palace in 1919. Yet though the Korean monarchy ultimately failed to survive the impact of modernisation, its endeavours to save the country remain valid.

‘This church brilliantly reconciles a basilica layout with the traditional form of Korean houses’

Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral was also mired in political complications. Set on the grand Sejongro Boulevard, the red-brick building is a prominent, eye-catching monument compared with the neighbouring British Embassy, discreetly tucked away from the busy streetscape. Designed by Arthur Stansfield Dixon, the Anglican Cathedral was built between 1922 and 1926 in an austere Romanesque style. Its features include a bell tower, arched walls, a crypt and traceries which are simple and modest, with clay tiles employed for the roof. Dixon was a friend of William Morris and founded the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft in 1890 yet, due to lack of funds, his ambitious original design was never completed. However, his plans were rediscovered in 1993 and the building finally extended and finished by the Korean architect Kim Won in 1996. 

Fig.8 ganghwa anglican church interior

Fig.8 ganghwa anglican church interior

The interior of the same church reflects its Christian roots and is arranged in the style of a basilica. Photograph by Alfred Hwangbo

Two other churches in the early missionary period manifest unique forms and spatial qualities when seen in the Korean context. Anglican missions began in Korea in 1895 and the first Anglican baptism took place at Ganghwa Island in 1896. Financially supported by the Anglican church in London, Ganghwa Anglican Church was consecrated in 1900. Employing a traditional Korean-style timber bracket structure with rafters and clay roof tiles, this extraordinary church has a spatial arrangement of a two-storey basilica, with double eaves and clerestory windows. A modest narthex space opens to the main volume, comprising a nave flanked by aisles. The altar is placed on a raised platform with a chancel, while an apsidal space is located behind the altar to form a rear narthex. Transepts were not attempted, yet in many respects, this church brilliantly reconciles a basilica layout with the traditional form of Korean houses.

Also on Ganghwa Island is Onsuri Church, financed largely by individual Korean Christians. Its priest had a close relationship with the island’s residents and respected local culture. Built in 1906, the church adopts a Korean domestic style of timber, bracket and clay roof tiles with a basilica layout. Twelve wooden columns were arranged to signify the 12 apostles. A less-adorned nave is narrower than the aisle, and men and women were not seated together. Modest in size, the church is mindful of local customs and shows a willingness to accommodate them. 

Fig.7 ganghwa anglican church exterior

Fig.7 ganghwa anglican church exterior

The exterior of Ganghwa Anglican Church in Seoul displays a typical Korean timber bracket structure. Photograph courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

Following the Japanese annexation of Korea, the use of the Korean language was banned and Shinto ceremonies imposed. Along with other branches of the Christian faith, the Anglican church was obliged to yield to the colonial authorities. However, Ganghwa Anglican Church refused to host Shinto ceremonies, regarding them as unacceptable to the tenets of Christianity. The church had also founded a school in 1914. Both church and school were seen as a potential threat to the colonial order, so church ministers were banished and the school forced to shut down. Japanese suppression of language and religion continued until Korean independence at the end of the Second World War. During this time, however, Korean nationalist spirit was strengthened in the quest for independence and religious freedom. 

Re-evaluating the past can often be a contested process, yet there can be no clear future without acknowledging and interrogating the course of history. It is only recently that Koreans have become more receptive to the idea that, for better or for worse, the British presence in Korea made a meaningful contribution towards their country’s early modernisation.