Lost buildings are always fascinating, and the old Palace of Westminster is no exception. When I come across a building which still stands relating to it, I find it hard to resist picturing it in my mind’s eye. There are parts of the precincts of Windsor Castle which must be very similar to the old Houses of Parliament before the fire of 1834, as both were altered by James Wyatt, during his time as Surveyor General of the King’s Works from 1796 up to his death in 1813.
But it is his great house at Ashridge in Hertfordshire, where I’m currently on a course, which has the strongest scent of old Westminster, particularly Old Palace Yard. Compare and contrast the following:
Above: Ashridge in 2013
Above: The Houses of Parliament from Old Palace Yard, in 1834
with Wyatt’s late 18th century frontage.
Above: Ashridge, again, in 2013.
I find this quite spooky and evocative. Do you?
I’m currently on a lecture tour for the Royal Oak Foundation (Americans in Alliance with the National Trust), and a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the great Turner oils of the 1834 fire – which now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During the writing of The Day Parliament Burned Down I stuck postcards of Turner’s paintings around my desk to inspire me, including that one, so the chance to see it in person was unmissable. Here are my impressions.
It was a chilly March morning when I climbed the steps to the museum, better known as the backdrop to Rocky’s training sessions. One of the lecture sponsors had generously offered me complimentary entry and I knew from my museum floorplan that the room I needed was 292. It was a long walk to the room on the top floor and as I got closer to it, I started to feel rather nervous. Suppose the painting was a disappointment? What would I do then? Was the small, dog-eared Medici postcard that had kept me company through several years of writing going to turn out to be nothing like the real thing? It felt a bit like an internet date (not that I’ve ever done that, ahem). Humiliation and betrayal were possibly just a few rooms away.
I needn’t have worried. The painting wasn’t as I expected, but it was still magnificent. It is hung cleverly, at the end of an enfilade of British painting, including some Constables (and of course, Constable was sketching the fire from his carriage jammed on Westminster Bridge while his great rival moved from Old Palace Yard to a boat on the Thames to do his work during the evening ).
Getting up close to it, and the museum having a policy of allowing photographs without flash, meant that I was able to soak up a lot of the detail which I’d never seen before in my postcard. To begin with, the painting is much more ‘pastel-y’ than it appears in reproductions, even my photo below. It’s hard to believe it’s actually oil in some places. The fire is a hazy apricot on the left, and the night sky on the right a washed-out blue. Westminster bridge seems almost painted in watercolour. It is an astonishing piece of technique from Turner.
The painting was completed at a ‘varnishing day’ in March 1835, and the artist E.V. Rippingille recalled a couple of decades later how its twin (now at Cleveland Museum of Art) was ‘finished’ in a bravura piece of showmanship:
‘Turner who, as he boasted, could outwork and kill any painter alive, was there, and at work at his picture, before I came, having set-to at the earliest hour allowed. Indeed, it was quite necessary to make the best of his time, as the picture when sent in was a mere dab of several colours, and “without form and void,” like chaos before the creation…Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest and attraction…A small box of colours, a few very small brushes, and a vial or two, were at his feet, very inconveniently place; but his short figure, stooping, enabled him to reach what he wanted very readily. Leaning forward and sideways over to the right, the left-hand metal button of his blue coat rose six inches higher than the right, and his head buried in his shoulders and held down, presented an aspect curious to all beholders…In one part of the mysterious proceedings Turner, who worked almost entirely with a palette knife, was observed to be rolling and spreading a lump of half-transparent stuff over his picture, the size of a finger in length and thickness…Presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, and at the same distance from it, went sidling off without speaking a word to anybody, and when he came to the staircase, in the centre of the room, hurried down as fast as he could. All looked with a half-wondering smile, and Maclise [Daniel Maclise, painter and friend of Dickens], who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work; he knows it is done and he is off.”‘
In my lectures on the fire (I’d done one at the Union League Club of Philadelphia the night before) I use various paintings of the fire to tell the story of its progress. Close up to this Turner I was able to spot the following:
…the detail of the burning buildings to the south (left) of the House of Commons, and the thickly-applied paint for the fire shooting up from its roof to the sky…
…the great grey plume of smoke from the building which continued for days after…
…the faces of people in the crowd on the Lambeth bank, and the water racing through the piers of the bridge…
…the torches in the crowd on the same bank…
…the fearsome sparks flying overhead which terrified onlookers.
Altogether it was a wonderful experience, but also a poignant one. The painting wasn’t attracting much attention from visitors, and there was no merchandise in the museum stores which I could find. I was hoping to come away with a fun bag of loot relating to the picture – fridge magnet, mug, t-shirt, keyring, anything – but there wasn’t even a postcard to take away. There were some general books on Turner but nothing specific on this picture. It is not, of course, neglected but it isn’t fully appreciated in the US, either. It just doesn’t have the same resonance there as in the UK. If it had formed part of the Turner bequest and now hung in Tate Britain it would be one of the highlights of the collection. It left the country in the 19th century so nothing can be done about it, yet I can’t help feeling that it is one of the great artistic losses of the UK. However, I recognise that I am obsessed with the subject, and maybe others won’t feel the same. Or do you?
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It’s William Cobbett’s 250th birthday today. In honour of the occasion, here are the great radical’s views on sitting in the very uncomfortable House of Commons chamber in the years leading up to the calamitous fire of 1834:
Why are we squeezed into so small a space that it is absolutely impossible that there should be calm and regular discussion, even from the circumstance alone? Why do we live in this hubbub? Why are we exposed to all these inconveniences? Why are 658 of us crammed into a space that allows each of us no more than a foot and a half square while at the same time, each of the servants of the King, whom we pay, has a palace to live in, and more unoccupied space in that palace than the little hold into which we are crammed to make the laws by which this great kingdom is governed?
News of some other mementoes carved from the ruins of the old Palace of Westminster following the 1834 fire has reached me. This time they’ve been created from salvaged stonework, and depict a mysterious man and woman.
They’re really rather curious objects, each about 15cm high. When viewed straight-on they might be a late-mediaeval monk and nun, both with heavy crucifixes and singing from missals. He has a thick beard (though no tonsure), and she a stiff linen wimple. But look around the sides and you get a different view. They are both seated in wicker armchairs, and their clothes are strangely decorated. Their sleeves are acanthus leaves and the woman’s headress and cuffs are strangely bobbled. She reminds me a little of Tenniel’s Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Todd wonders whether they were actually carved from salvaged stone by the masons building the new Palace (signatures are carved into the bases). I wonder whether they were part of a larger set – maybe a chess set? Perhaps they were samples produced by miniature stonecarvers to show off their various techniques to the trade? Or maybe they are simply a bit of faux medieval antiquarian fun, created in the aftermath of the fire when a great debate raged in the press about what sort of style was suitable for a new Parliament building? What do you think?
All images © T. Longstaffe-Gowan and T. Knox Collection.
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The Nichols family who edited and printed The Gentleman’s Magazine were also parliamentary printers and their office was at 25 Parliament Street. John Gough Nichols (1806-1873) sent a letter to his father – who was on holiday in Hastings with the rest of the family - the day after the fire, and this has now come to light thanks to the efforts of Julian Pooley who is undertaking the enormous task of editing the Nichols family correspondence. Julian has kindly transcribed it for me and I reproduce it here:
John Gough Nichols at Parliament Street to John Bowyer Nichols at 6 Pelham Place, Hastings
‘As bad news travels fast, you will probably have heard of the great & awful calamity of last night. The two Houses of Parliament are totally destroyed; but, thank Heaven, the noble Hall is safe. You may suppose our neighbourhood is in the greatest bustle with the curious multitudes. I was on my way home when I first saw it from an omnibus at the opening of the Green Park in Piccadilly, & seeing it was so very near Parliament Street, I thought it right to go back, but by the time I got to St James’ Palace in the Park, I saw it between the towers of St Margarets & the Abbey, & so felt secure that it was not immediately near us: nor did I think it was so very close to the Abbey, but set it down for a manufactory in Lambeth. The flames rose to a tremendous height, to which I suppose the valuable accumulation of Petitions added fuel. I understand Mr Hume was there rejoicing that a way was now cleared for his new House of Commons. Brewster was in the premises, & Eben[eze]r Tymms [a compositor for the Nichols Press] within the Hall. They drew engines into the Hall, & fortunately it is quite safe, at the expense of the glass in the great window. It is said the fire commenced very near that spot, but the wind was rather the other way – exceedingly high & blustery, as [you] know. St Margaret’s church is full of things saved: I shall not have time to go and look about with my own eyes.’
(Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. Lett. c. 6165/3/f. 302 NAD6954)
Just before Christmas I found myself attending a week-long course in the City of London and, as chance would have it, the training centre was on the corner of Queen Street and Watling Street EC4. Watling Street was the Roman road which ran from Dover to Wroxeter and beyond. This London fragment of it still bears its ancient name, lying in the shadow of St Paul’s and also running parallel to Cheapside (the main market street of the City from medieval times onwards).
Apart from Christmas shopping, my interest in Watling Street was because No 68 was, in 1834, the headquarters of the London Fire Engine Establishment and residence of James Braidwood. I went exploring in my lunch hour and discovered – I think – that 68 does not exist any more. Was it perhaps on the site which is now occupied by the New Change shopping centre (specifically the Bread Street Kitchen bistro photographed below)? I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can confirm this.
However, the spirit of Braidwood still lives on in this bustling part of the City. At the other end of Watling Street is a Japanese restaurant sporting a plaque (see below) which proudly proclaims that the building stands on the former site of the London Salvage Corps. This was an organisation set up around the same time as the first public London Fire Brigade following Braidwood’s tragic death in 1861 to provide specialist help in rescuing furniture, goods and stock from burning premises. It appears to have had several locations over the years along Watling Street, no doubt located there because by the 1860s this road had become known for its fire-fighting associations.
Even better, across the road from it stands St Mary Aldermary Church (you can see it on the left in the first picture). A city church, hemmed in on all sides by other buildings, it sports a lovely Georgian gothic fan-vaulted ceiling below which on the north wall is a rectangular marble monument to Braidwood (too high to get a close-up picture, I’m afraid):
In memory of
Superintendant of the London Fire Engine Establishment
Who lost his life
In the great fire in Tooley street June 22nd 1861
In the 61st year of his age
Interred at Adney Park cemetery June 29th 1861
Be ye therefore ready also, for the son of man
Cometh at an hour when ye think not
Erected by the engineers and firemen
Of the station in Watling Street
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It’s not just Dickens’ 200th birthday, this is Pugin’s year too.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the bicentenary celebrations of Charles Dickens’ birth is the way in which his early life before he became a novelist has been rediscovered. It turns out that in the early 1830s he was a Parliamentary reporter and political sketchwriter for various London newspapers: an experience which crept its way into his early books – most notably The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. For the rest of his life, Dickens had a profound contempt for politicians and political life even though, later in his career, he was offered the chance to become an MP himself.
But in fact there are a whole range of other Parliamentary anniversaries being commemorated this year. It is the 200th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons. It is 500 years since a disastrous fire in the private apartments of the Palace of Westminster led to the building’s abandonment by Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon, freeing it up to become the permanent location for the House of Commons (the Lords were already there). And perhaps most importantly of all for Parliament, it is also 200 years since the birth of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
Born on 1 March 1812, just 16 days after ‘the inimitable’, Pugin as much as Dickens shaped the culture of the Victorian era. What Dickens was to the literary imagination of 19th century England, Pugin was to its visual one. It was Pugin who added the decorative details to Charles Barry’s Houses of Parliament: the encaustic tiles, the stained glass, the extraordinary wallpaper, the leather chairs with their Portcullis symbol, the explosion of gold and scarlet which is the interior of the House of Lords, the icon that is Big Ben, and the gilded vanes on the finials of the exterior which glitter against the London skyline whatever the weather. He designed countless neo-Gothic churches in support of the Oxford Movement; inspired the Arts and Crafts movement; and gave birth to English domestic architecture as we know it today. Anyone living in a suburban house with an entrance hallway leading to a sitting room and dining room, and a dog-leg staircase rising to the first floor, owes it to Pugin (though he would undoubtedly loathe their bland decorative schemes and machine-made fixtures).
Like Dickens, Pugin had endless problems with women. Passionate, impulsive and always falling in and out of love, he had three wives and a number of agonising affaires. Like Dickens, he was indifferently educated, and largely self-taught. He was shipwrecked; Dickens survived a terrible railway accident. Both had large families, and both most likely produced some illegitimate offspring. Both were workaholics, crippled by mystery illnesses and driven to distraction by business difficulties. Both loved Christmastide. As young men, they were similarly obsessed with the theatre. Dickens hung around the stagedoor at Drury Lane and the Adelphi, while Pugin was a stagehand and set-designer at Covent Garden, there contracting the syphilis which prematurely killed him at the age of 40 in 1852. They must have passed each other in the street without knowing it as young men, and as older men though they seem not to have met, Dickens was certainly aware of Pugin and hostile to his religious views. Both men called Kent their home. Dickens survived for another eighteen years. He, like Barry, has a tomb in Westminster Abbey. Pugin is buried in his own church at Ramsgate beside his third wife Jane. It is only in the last few years with Rosemary Hill’s acclaimed biography God’s Architect that Pugin’s genius has been revealed in all its glory, and has placed him alongside Dickens as a towering artistic figure of the nineteenth century. Happy Birthday, Augustus.
One of my hopes on publishing The Day Parliament Burned Down was that new information which I had been unable to track down in my research would come to light when readers and audiences got to hear about the fire. The most obvious one was to find out what ultimately happened to Chance the dog, but I also wondered if people might come forward with more eye-witness accounts I hadn’t found or maybe more pictures I hadn’t seen.
And I’m thrilled to say that three months in, this is starting to happen. I was delighted when someone approached me after a talk and told me about a box they had recently purchased from an antiques dealer, purporting to be a relic of the old Palace. I discuss the wooden boxes made from the charred timbers of St Stephen’s and the lead medals cast from its melted roof in the penultimate chapter of my book. I had never found any pictures of these items so until now had to imagine what they looked like. No longer. The owner very kindly allowed me to take some photos of their souvenir, which is a small round snuffbox inlaid with an ivory label.
It reads: ‘This box was part of the Painted Chamber Destroyed by Fire Octr 16 1834′. Altogether this is a rather superior version.
As if this wasn’t exciting enough, it turned out that this was one of three boxes for sale from the dealer, so I got in touch to see if the others had been sold. Sadly they had (would have made a nice Christmas present for me!), but there was still a record of them on dealer’s website.
The second box (below) was made of oak, with a silver label, nicely engraved with the words ‘This box was part of the roof of the House of Commons destroyd by fire October 16th 1834′.
And the third box, again from the Painted Chamber (below), was a more modest affair, oak again but this time with die-stamped lead label. It corresponds most closely with the souvenirs I describe in the book – cheap and cheerful, and presumably produced en masse to meet popular demand. It reads: ‘Made from wood forming part of the Painted Chamber House of Lords 1065′.
’1065′ could, I suppose, be a misattribution of the date of the building of the Painted Chamber which was in fact thirteenth-century, but it is more likely surely that this is a serial number of the box, such were the quantities being turned out in the weeks and months following the fire.
I’d like to thank the owner of the original box for showing this fascinating relic to me and enabling me to share this with you. I am always very happy to hear of more…!
This year is the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, the authorized text of services for the Church of England, and the accompanying Act of Uniformity. It’s interesting to note the Anglican Prayer for Parliament, as set down in 1662, in the gorgeous language of the BCP:
MOST gratious God, we humbly beseech thee, as for this Kingdom in generall, so especially for the high Court of Parliament, under our most religious, and gratious King, at this time assembled: That thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper all their consultations to the advancement of thy glory, the good of thy Church, the safety honour and welfare of our Soveraign, and his kingdoms; that all things may be so ordered and setled by their endeavors upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and Piety may be established among us for all generations. These and all other necessaries for them, for us, and thy whole Church, we humbly begg in the Name and Mediation of Jesus Christ our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.
The version in the shorter prayer book of 1947 reads very similarly, but with some updatings:
MOST gracious God, we humbly beseech thee, as for this kingdom in general, so especially for the High Court of Parliament, under our Sovereign Lady the Queen at this time assembled: That thou wouldest be pleased to direct and prosper all their consultations to the advancement of thy glory, the good of thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of our Sovereign and her Dominions; that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be established among us for all generations. These and all other necessaries, for them, for us, and thy whole Church, we humbly beg in the Name and Mediation of Jesus Christ our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.