30 June 2011

An afternoon with Pugin ... and friends ... in the Palace of Westminster

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster ... a triumph of the Victorian Gothic revival in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I spent Wednesday afternoon [29 June 2011] in the Palace of Westminster, where Caroline Babington and Gerard Linehan introduced me to what is known to most of us as the British Houses of Parliament. This is probably the best-know building in London, and no-one can but be excited by Big Ben and its neighbouring honey-coloured pinnacles, turrets and tracery.

Gerard is an old friend since my teens; Caroline, who is the Preventive Conservator at Palace of Westminster, is the expert in her field. She is the co-author, with Tracy Manning and Sophie Stewart of Our Painted Past: Wall Paintings of English Heritage (1999), and studied the Conservation of Wall Paintings at the Courtalud Institute of Art.

Pugin’s portrait in the Palace of Westminster

I was particularly interested in seeing the Palace of Westminster because of my current research on AWN Pugin and the Gothic Revival in architecture in Britain and Ireland. The Palace of Westminster as we know it today was designed by Sir Charles Barry and AWN Pugin after the great fire of 1834.

Barry won the competition for rebuilding because of the clarity of his plan and his exquisite and minute drawings. But the drawings were by Pugin, and his contribution was crucial from the very beginning. Pugin designed the woodwork for the entire interior detail, and this remained his chief preoccupation until his death in 1852.

During this time, Pugin poured out countless designs for the interior, and they still grace the rooms of the Palace of Westminster today. His designs for furniture in the House of Lords include octagonal tables, X-frame chairs, and – the most ornate of all – the throne.

In the late 1830s, Pugin enlisted the help of manufacturers and craftsmen to realise his creations. He coaxed and he encouraged them, and they interpreted his imagination and his vision.

Pugin designed wallpaper that is singled out by his Rose-and-Portcullis design that became an identifying mark throughout the Palace of Westminster

Pugin designed wallpaper that is singled out by his Rose-and-Portcullis design that became an identifying mark throughout the Palace. Pugin used this and the Tudor rose extensively in the decoration of the whole building.

Pugin-inspired ceramic tiles ... designed by Minton for the Palace of Westminster

He commissioned Minton to make ceramic tiles that are now well-worn underfoot, while Hardman of Birmingham produced metalwork and stained glass – both partnerships also worked on his churches throughout Ireland.

Pugin also used the firm of Crace for decorative painting and gilding. The Thames Bank workshops, under the direction of John Thomas, were employed for stone carvings on the outside of the building – including the lion and unicorn outside Saint Stephen’s Entrance.

But Pugin resented the fact that throughout the project Barry was the guiding spirit who conceived the building we know today. Perhaps the secret of the building’s success lies in the collaboration between these two different and often confrontational men, with its fusion of their two completely different views.

British politicians like to describe this as the “Mother of All Parliaments,” and until recently some even claimed that this was the world’s largest building. All agree that architecturally this is the greatest achievement of the Victorian Gothic Revival.

The Pugin rug ... designed in the early 1850s and now on display off the Main Committee Corridor

Caroline was especially interested in showing me a hand-knotted rug designed in the 1850s by AWN Pugin for the New Palace of Westminster, shortly before his death in 1852. Her work at the Curator’s Office involved researching original correspondence that has led her to see this rug as a significant contribution to understanding what is one of the most important schemes of interior design from the 19th century.

She showed me the rug which is now on display off the Main Committee Corridor of the Palace of Westminster – close to a bust of Charles Stewart Parnell. It was acquired five years ago in 2006 by the Advisory Committee on Works of Art and the Speaker’s Art Fund because of Pugin’s contribution to the original decorative schemes for the building.

But first we entered the Palace through the modern office block that is Portcullis House, and passed through New Palace Yard to Westminster Hall, which dates from 1099. With its massive scale – it measures 240 ft by 60 ft – and its oak hammer-beam roof dating from the late 14th century, this is one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever been in. It was saved from the fire in 1834 through the intervention of the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Melbourne; it is here Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and Charles I were placed on trial; it is here that monarchs and prime ministers lay in state before their funerals; and it was here that most recently President Barack Obama addressed both Houses of Parliament.

From Westminster Hall, we made our way through Saint Stephen’s Hall, designed by Barry, to the Central Lobby, which ;inks the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In the tiling of the lobby, Pugin inscribed a scriptural quote in Latin: “Except the Lord keep the house, they labour in vain that build it.”

The throne designed by Pugin in the House of Lords

We sat for a while in the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Lord, peering at the throne designed by Pugin, looked in at the Commons, say Pugin’s portrait, looked over at the Victoria Tower and viewed the Thames from the members’ terrace as the sunny afternoon appeared to stretch on and on.

Throughout the visit, there were frescoes and paintings at every turn, wallpaper and fireplaces, carvings and sculptures, oak panelling and furniture, each with a hint of Pugin’s genius, and all the time celebrating in symbols of roses and shamrocks the cultural and political union of these islands.

My only regrets were not being able to take photographs and that I had not arranged to have more time for such a wonderful visit.

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