Launched in 1828 by James Silk Buckingham, it was sold within a few weeks to Frederick Maurice and John Sterling, who failed to make it profitable. In 1829, Charles Wentworth Dilke became part proprietor and editor; he greatly extended the influence of the magazine. In 1846, he resigned the editorship and assumed that of the Daily News but contributed a series of notable articles to Athenaeum. In 1846, Thomas Kibble Hervey, poet and critic, became editor until his resignation due to ill health in 1853.
George Darley was a staff critic in the early years, and Gerald Massey contributed many literary reviews - mainly on poetry - during the period 1858-1868. Theodore Watts-Dunton contributed regularly as the principal critic of poetry from 1875 until 1898. Frederic George Stephens was art editor from 1851 until 1901, when he was replaced by Roger Fry because of his unfashionable hatred of Impressionism. Arthur Symons joined the staff in 1891.
In the 19th century, it received contributions from Lord Kelvin. In the early 20th century, its contributors included Max Beerbohm, Edmund Blunden, T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell, Julian Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf.
From 1849 to 1880 Geraldine Jewsbury contributed over 2300 reviews. She was one of very few women who reviewed for the Athenaeum and started submitting her reviews regularly by 1854. She rated highly novels that showed character morality and were also entertaining. She criticized the "fallen woman" theme which was common in Victorian literature. In the second half of the 1850s Geraldine was entrusted with the "New Novels" section.
On other grounds, the magazine's place in the history of sports writing is assured. A letter from J. S. Cotton, reportedly printed in 1905, definitively tells of the first-ever reference to cricket in India.
In 1921, with falling circulation, the Athenaeum was incorporated into its younger competitor: the Nation, becoming The Nation and Athenaeum. In 1931, this successor publication merged with the New Statesman, to form the New Statesman and Nation.
- Fryckstedt, Monica Correa (1986). Geraldine Jewsbury's "Athenaeum" Reviews: A Mirror of Mid-Victorian Attitudes to Fiction. Stockholm: Almqvist Och Wiksell.
- Demoor, Marysa, Their Fair Share: Women, Power, and Criticism in the Athenaeum, from Millicent Garratt Fawcett to Katharine Mansfield, 1870-1920. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. ISBN 978-0-7546-0118-0
- Graham, Walter James, 'The Athenaeum', English Literary Periodicals. New York: T. Nelson, 1930, pp. 317–321.
- Marchand, Leslie A., The Athenaeum: A Mirror of Victorian Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
- Sullivan, Alvin, ed., 'The Athenaeum', British Literary Magazines. Vol.3. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983-, pp. 21–24.
- A selection of Gerald Massey's literary reviews for the Athenaeum
- The Athenaeum Projects: Centre for Interactive Systems Research, City University, London - an index of all literary reviews from 1830-1870 - and all scientific reviews from 1828-1830.
- Athenaeum review of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss by Geraldine Jewsbury, (April 7, 1860).