The New Palace of Westminster

The fire of 1834, which destroyed much but not all of the old palace of Westminster, provided an opportunity to put into place some of the long existing hopes and plans for a purpose-built Parliament. After a controversial competition, and amid seemingly interminable wrangling, the project was entrusted to the architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), who collaborated with the artist and designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). Their masterpiece, in its external appearance and its internal decoration, was inevitably something of a compromise of styles and aspirations, but it aimed to embody a vision of Britishness. The resulting building is now a much loved national icon.

The new palace of Westminster incorporated parts of the surviving structure of the old palace, most notably the medieval Westminster Hall and the adjoining law courts (until they moved to new buildings in the Strand in the 1880s). Built in the Perpendicular style, it aimed to harmonize with the surrounding buildings, not least the Henry VII chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey.

The new palace also contained elements that had been prefigured in earlier projected plans for rebuilding Parliament, for instance the positioning of the two Houses along a central axis, with the Speaker’s chair in the Commons facing the throne in the Lords at the other end of the building. In addition, the emphasis on the monarch’s entrance under the Victoria Tower and the ceremonial route to the Lords chamber for the state opening were an extension of ideas that had been current at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Yet the new palace was a strikingly large and original conception, providing clever and elegant solutions to many of the technical problems that existed at the time, including the use of metalwork in the roofs in order to reduce the risk of fire damage. These developments emerged over a couple of decades, as the new palace was constructed around the ruins of the old, in which politicians continued to sit and work.  One of the most unusual features of the palace was only finally finished in 1859 – the Big Ben tower, which was largely the work of Pugin’s fertile imagination. In fact, the name really applies to the great bell in the clock tower and was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, MP for Marylebone, the first commissioner of works, the government department which oversaw the whole project.

While the Lords used its new chamber from 1847 and the Commons was able to occupy its chamber from 1852, the palace as a whole was not completed until 1870. By that time a bitter quarrel had broken out between the respective sons of Pugin and Barry as to which of them had ultimately been responsible for the overall design. Certainly it was Barry who had had to shoulder the exhausting burdens of running the building works and being subjected to the constant interference of parliamentarians, who were concerned not only about style, but about the enormous costs and repeated delays.

Nowadays, however, it is generally accepted that the two men had an equally significant and interrelated impact on the project. But it is clear that the initial conception and the managerial control of its long-term development were Barry’s responsibility, though his pernickety and prosaic artistic skills would not have been up to the complexity of the detailed finishes. It was here that Pugin’s genius and exuberance found its greatest outlet, with his extraordinary talents being used to great effect in the architectural features and interior designs, though his tendency to extravagance of interpretation and sheer eccentricity needed to be tempered by Barry’s modulating hand.

Overseen by the Royal Fine Arts Commission, which was chaired by Prince Albert, the interior decorative scheme was also prone to excite public controversy. Yet, insofar as it was completed, it did largely succeed in promoting a visual focus for a United Kingdom. For example, the central lobby was (eventually, though not until the 1920s) filled with mosaics of the patron saints of England (St. George), Wales (St. David), Scotland  (St. Andrew) and Ireland (St. Patrick).

It has been argued that the interior decorative scheme of the new palace divides into two parts. At the southern end of the building, including the state apartments and the House of Lords, the emphasis was on immutable British (often, in fact, English) virtues, as seen for example in the paintings of the Arthurian legends in the royal robing room. By contrast, the rest of the building, particularly the corridors leading off central lobby, were used for murals of major historical events, conflicts which depicted the struggle for British liberty. For example, Charles West Cope’s wall painting of Charles I attempting to arrest the five Members in the Commons in 1642 showed one of the defining moments in English parliamentary history.

The comparatively small and austere Commons chamber, which was rebuilt – complete with green benches – after being destroyed in 1941, remains in stark contrast with the highly flamboyant decoration of the Lords chamber, with its red benches. This contrast, between the business-like House of Commons, where the real political power lies, and the ornate House of Lords, which is the central ceremonial space in Parliament, is another key feature of this complex and symbolic building.

Author: Stephen Farrell