To shape a House that thereafter shaped us

August 24, 2001

Christopher Woodward on Barry's Gothic triumph by the Thames.

At six o'clock in the evening of October 16 1834, fire broke out under the debating chamber of the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster. All London turned out to watch. The spectators included the architect Charles Barry, who had recently completed the novel Italianate Travellers' Club in Pall Mall, a furniture designer, the young A. W. N. Pugin, and J. M. W. Turner, who subsequently painted the scene that provided the water, boats and source of light that were his trademarks, while the smoke stood in for his preferred mist. The cry from the crowd was "save the hall!" and indeed, when the fire finally died, the Chapel of St Stephen, which had housed the Commons, and the Painted Chamber had been gutted, but Westminster Hall with its magnificent timber roof erected in the 1390s was the only medieval remnant of the palace to survive.

The parliamentary committees set up in 1835 to determine how Parliament should be rehoused set themselves two questions: where should the replacement be sited, and what should be the style of the new buildings? William IV's offer of Buckingham Palace, which Nash was just completing, was rejected. Radical Members of Parliament proposed other sites including both Green and St James's parks, on the grounds that these would be more accessible and healthier (the latter a prescient thought given the later cholera outbreaks of the 1840s and 1850s). Eventually, as Andrea Fredericksen shows, Westminster's genius loci proved irresistible and it was confirmed as the site of the new palace.

The committees launched an architectural competition: the building's style was to be a specifically English Elizabethan or Gothic. The first of these had begun to be rediscovered by antiquarians during the Napoleonic wars and subsequently popularised by novelists such as Walter Scott, and Gothic had been used for gentlemen's follies, but the new Palace of Westminster was to be the first public building for which their use was proposed.

In 1834, English architectural talent was rather attenuated. Nash and Soane were very old men, and Robert Smirke was busy supervising the construction of the British Museum. The competition attracted 97 entries, from which Barry's was declared the winner for its "evident marks of genius and superiority of talent", a verdict with which, on the evidence of his competitors' efforts presented here, we are bound to agree. The drawings were exhibited and during the following controversy fuelled by MPs, critics and the newspapers, Barry kept his head down and started working up the design. The modern reader will probably be as impressed by the sophistication of Barry's plan as by his sensible choice of the versatile and economical perpendicular Gothic style derived from Henry VII's Chapel across the road rather than from something more pointed. He proposed two very long ranges each running north-south and externally of three storeys, one containing the chambers for Lords and Commons and set parallel to the long axis of the hall, the other housing offices and meeting rooms parallel to an embanked Thames and arranged symmetrically. In a masterstroke of picturesque-ness at least worthy of London's Nash or Berlin's Schinkel, Barry placed two stumpy towers at opposite corners of the plan, a clock tower to the north and the "King's Tower" to the south. (The latter provided a grand entrance for the monarch when attending the state opening of Parliament, a ceremony George IV liked enormously and had done much to glamorise.) Barry later improved the plan by swinging out the Thames side range to make it parallel to its partner and allowing the courtyards it enclosed to be larger and more regular; he increased the height of the towers and slimmed them, and he engaged the young Pugin to start to help him work up the Gothic details.

Alexandra Wedgwood explains very clearly exactly what were Pugin's contributions on the two occasions that Barry employed him, and the story is very different from and more interesting than the common one that Pugin had to educate the classicist Barry in how to do proper Gothic. Wedgwood suggests that Barry knew exactly what he was doing with his perpendicular, but first called in Pugin, who was then preparing his polemic Contrasts , published in 1836, to help him by providing design sketches for some of the details and then, later, in 1844 for the complete design of the fittings of the House of Lords' Chamber. Here, Barry had to moderate Pugin's by then correct but delirious ecclesiastical medievalising.

But first a stone for the building had to be chosen, and for once everything was done correctly - quarries visited, trials carried out - but, as it turned out, wrongly: the limestone from the Duke of Leeds's Anston quarry laminated when not laid in its natural bed, and much of the building has had to be re-faced subsequently, the last campaign only recently completed. For the interior Barry chose a (dare we admit French?) white limestone from Caen that caused no problems.

In 1841, Prince Albert set up the Fine Arts Commission to consider "the promotion of the fine arts in this country in connexion with the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament", in particular to try to establish a school of grand history painting to match the French tradition exemplified by Delacroix, David and Ingres, and to commission works for Barry's proposed 670 sculpture-opportunities. The commissions for paintings, which finally petered out in the 1900s, appear to be a gallant rather than a miserable failure, although Daniel Maclise's huge murals would make interesting subjects for jigsaw puzzles. Benedict Read has more success with the sculpture, which did indeed kick-start the fashion for ambitious allegorical and chivalric programmes of decoration for Victorian public buildings and monuments, and which included such commissions as the equestrian statue of Richard Coeur de Lion, by Baron Carlo Marochetti, Prince Albert's favourite sculptor. Although admired by Ruskin, this was so controversial that it had to be placed, like that of Cromwell, outside in the yard. The Lords' Chamber, finished in 1847, was received, as Wedgwood notes, "with unusual acclaim, and it immediately became a source of great national pride"; the Illustrated London News thought it "without doubt the finest specimen of Gothic civil architecture in Europe". She forbears from saying that today's newspapers would just tell us that the doors did not fit or that Pugin's double-flock wallpaper was more expensive than the Beckhams's. This success was Barry's adieu, for he died suddenly in 1860, and the work was taken up and the Commons completed by his second son, Edward Middleton, who had just completed what was to become the Royal Opera House.

In May 1941, German incendiary bombs set fire to the hall and the Commons Chamber. Once again, the priority was "save the hall!" and by the following day the Commons was burnt out. Gavin Stamp describes Churchill's subsequent management of the programme for replacing it. Its present form was far from decided, and again members called for a chamber of a different shape, for one large enough for every MP to have their own seat, for the House to be removed to the cleaner, safer suburbs where it could be served by its own aerodrome. All these were resisted and Stamp is clear about the reasons for the selection of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott as architect and for the ratification of his proposal to restore the chamber by inserting a steel and reinforced concrete "battleship" of five storeys into the gap left by the fire. While some described the result as merely having the cosiness of a suburban hotel, students at the Architectural Association protested that it was not modern and from the pages of Country Life Robert Lutyens accused Scott of "fakery", Stamp manages to applaud Scott's achievement and to make his very personal, very late, "neon-Gothic" appear perhaps more interesting than it is.

The history of the palace was exhaustively told by M. H. Port in The History of the King's Works edited by Howard Colvin; the 16 distinguished contributors to this new book offer a much racier and more accessible account, their tasks sensibly distributed between narratives and themes. The editors' introduction, titled "Theatre of state" and David Cannadine's fine article, "The Palace of Westminster as palace of varieties", set the sprightly tone and are particularly instructive in telling us what we might prefer not to hear: that while much of the present palace remains largely as Barry and Pugin left it, the uses, performances and meanings that the building has entertained have always been unstable and that any attempt to make them appear otherwise must be bathetic. Barry's ultimate success lies in having designed a building that is now among the handful of those instantly recognisable anywhere in the world. The book's elegant modern scholarship and Derry Moore's beautiful but unpeopled new photographs will encourage the reader to take a fresh look both at the building and at the often contradictory ideas and ideals of its various sponsors and creators.

Christopher Woodward teaches at the Bartlett, University College London.

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