Bold strokes

16th January 2004 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Wanda Opalinska uncovers the story of an ambitious Victorian vision to unite Britain through art

They are among Britain's great hidden art treasures. Yet, during the two decades it took to create them, they were beset by political opposition and technical difficulties. The careers of their creators - "victims of a wretched experiment", in the words of art historian Sir Roy Strong - were ruined. The frescoes began to disintegrate almost as soon as they were completed and, once created, became objects of ridicule, condemned and neglected by successive generations. Such was the legacy of the frescoes created in the mid-19th century at the Palace of Westminster.

Fresco painting - the art of painting with pigment into fresh, wet plaster - was widely practised in Britain during the Middle Ages. Today, it seems incredible that anyone would have contemplated painting into the wet plaster walls of a building next to the Thames, to say nothing of the unsuitability of using a fresco technique in the damp British climate.

Apart from the extraordinary willingness of Parliament to countenance such an experimental scheme, the attempt to revive fresco painting at Westminster provides a fascinating insight into Victorian ideas about the role of art in society, and even into society itself during the 1830s and 1840s.

This was a crucial moment in the history of the arts in Britain. The need to rebuild the Palace of Westminster, home of Parliament, following the fire of 1834, provided an excellent opportunity to create a modern building more in keeping with the needs of an expanding legislature. It also offered a chance to produce a scheme of decoration prestigious enough to reflect the glories of Britain and her Empire.

However, the 1830s and 1840s were also a period of social, economic and political upheaval. The effects of industrialisation, coupled with domestic agitation in the form of the Chartist movement and rural disturbances such as the "Captain Swing riots", meant that the fear of revolution was always present in the minds of the ruling classes.

Despite political reforms such as the 1832 Reform Act, which led to a limited extension of the electorate, Britain was still a divided country.

Some argued that one way of uniting the nation was for the state to promote art to the masses. Schemes to allow the working classes access to the fine arts (such as entry into art galleries and national monuments) had cross-party support.

A select committee was set up by Robert Peel's Government to oversee the interior redecoration of the palace. This committee envisaged the "beneficial and elevating influence of the fine arts upon the masses", confident that a public that spent its leisure time in art galleries would be less inclined to vandalise farm machinery and set fire to haystacks.

This vision of the social value of art, coupled with the recognition that state patronage for the fine arts was important for the country's well-being, meant that the scheme was conceived with wider political and social aims uppermost.

The select committee was succeeded by the Fine Arts Commission, which took over responsibility for the interior work over the following 20 years.

Members of this commission played a significant role in shaping the development of art at Westminster. The appointment as president of the Queen's consort, Prince Albert, meant that the commission's decisions had the full authority of both Crown and Government. As a result, the decoration schemes in the palace would be seen as symbolic of the state itself.

Included on the commission were representatives of the main political parties, strengthening cross-party support for the venture. And alongside advocates of interventionism in the arts, there were interested amateurs and connoisseurs. But there was only one professional artist - Sir Charles Eastlake, appointed by Prince Albert.

The scheme at Westminster began with the highest aims. The palace's decoration was meant to be a statement of national excellence: Britain needed to match the recent large-scale historical murals commissioned by France's King Louis Philippe and Bavaria's King Ludwig. An unprecedented project, the scheme was also intended to provide impetus for a national school of art.

For many years, history painting and allegory were considered to be the most elevated genres of art. The latter was seen as a noble form, but its intellectualism was thought to alienate the public. History painting's use of idealised figures and epic events, showing the human spirit tested to the full, were judged by the commission to be most likely to inspire the public. A combination of both genres would be used in the palace.

Technical objections to the use of fresco, although exhaustively investigated by the commission, were disregarded (as was the unsurprising fact that few British artists could use this technique). If they were good at watercolour, it was reasoned, they could also learn fresco-painting.

Fresco's associations with both grandeur and simplicity suited public buildings - and, importantly, its depiction of actions and expressions would be readily understood by the masses. Traces of medieval wall decorations had been found in the old palace, and, by decorating the new palace in this way, a link with the historic structure was made, implying a wider continuity of tradition and authority.

One of the commission's main concerns was to decide exactly what images should be depicted in the new building. It was a short step to decide that these should be images representing strong government throughout history.

However, at one stage, pictures of "famous men", allegories and events of significance were all considered suitable - whether they were British or not - provoking outrage at the thought of anything but British scenes on the walls of the palace.

The issue of who should be chosen to carry out the work also led to uncertainty. In 1842, the first of a series of competitions was held. The choice of subject was left to the artist, within the theme of "the national in art" - events from British history or from the work of Spenser, Shakespeare or Milton.

About 140 projects, including those that won the competition, were exhibited in Westminster Hall in the summer of 1843. The decoration of the new palace was a matter of great public interest, and the exhibition was hugely popular, as were the lithographs that were on sale. The Fine Arts Commission's dream of the masses gazing at "elevating" pictures came true as these reproductions found their way into the country's parlours.

However, there was one major problem: not one of the entries showed a British event later than 1500. Additionally, unwilling to risk the ignominy of losing, few established artists had entered. The young British artists who had entered, among them Millais and Ford Maddox Brown, were not thought to have the experience necessary for the job. In the end, personal approaches were made to well-established artists, such as William Dyce.

The first completed fresco cycle in the House of Lords chamber (see box) received a rapturous public response, and the go-ahead was given for the rest of the project. Whole rooms were parceled out to favoured artists (not necessarily competition winners): Charles West Cope was asked to produce a series of frescoes for the Peers' Corridor, showing events from the Civil War; Dyce was commissioned in 1847 to produce an Arthurian cycle for the Royal Robing Room; and in 1857, the Irish painter Daniel Maclise was awarded the task of painting Britain's military victories in the Royal Gallery.

The Fine Arts Commission made slow progress. Delays in selecting subjects and artists demonstrated the bureaucratic nature of the state's involvement, while the strained relationship between the commission and Sir Charles Barry, the project architect, interrupted work further. Funding was not made available until 1850, financially crippling some of the artists working on the scheme.

The commission's appeals for greater funds were rejected in the 1850s by an increasingly hostile Parliament, keen to curb public spending. The work was also unpopular with the artists themselves. Visits to the site by Prince Albert also added to the delays. Dyce noted that: "when you are about to paint a sky, I don't advise you to have a Prince looking in upon you every minute or so."

For many of the artists, working on the Palace of Westminster was a thankless task. Badly paid and toiling well away from the public eye, their careers languished - one reason for their relative obscurity.

Working conditions were often appalling - the dust created by the rebuilding of the palace was stifling, walls remained damp and, if working during the "Great Stink" of 1858 - when the stench of rotting sewage seeped up from the Thames - wasn't bad enough, stained glass was installed in some of the rooms where the artists worked, obscuring the available daylight.

Worst of all, the artists had the demoralising experience of watching their work deteriorate before their eyes, a process Cope compared to "writing in the sand". Soon after completion, the frescoes in the chamber of the House of Lords began to discolour and deteriorate.

The disintegration was rapid: by 1860, restoration work had already begun on the scenes from "national literature" in the Upper Waiting Hall. When Maclise began work on "The Death of Nelson" (1865), his recently completed depiction of "Wellington Meeting Blucher" (1861) was already fading.

Slowly, the Westminster frescoes scheme collapsed; Dyce and members of the Fine Arts Commission died, and Eastlake and Prince Albert's attention shifted to other schemes, such as the National Gallery and the 1851 Great Exhibition. The death of Prince Albert in 1861 sounded the project's death-knell. Newspapers called the scheme "a monument to public stupidity and official mismanagement".

Although further decorations were later added to the Houses of Parliament, these were privately donated rather than funded by the taxpayer. Public taste and ideas about the role of art in public life had moved on.

Today, the Westminster frescoes provide a remarkable snapshot of Victorian society's values and beliefs during the 1830s and 1840s. They remain a moving monument to those artists whose careers were blighted by the attempt to reintroduce the technique at the Palace of Westminster.

'The Burial of King Charles I at Windsor' (1857)

This fresco is one of the series of panels based on the Civil War, painted by one of the winners of the 1842 competition, Charles West Cope. It forms the climax of the series and is a fine example of Victorian artists' interest in historical detail and historical reconstruction.

The burial of Charles I took place at St George's Chapel, Windsor in a snowstorm on February 9, 1649. The tableau is dominated by the figure of Colonel Whichcot, the Governor of Windsor Castle, refusing to allow Bishop Juxon, the Bishop of London to whom Charles I made his last confession, to read from the Book of Common Prayer. This had been banned under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, as the "royalist" Church of England rites of the book were at odds with the Roundheads' religious beliefs.

Of all the Westminster artists, Cope's work was the most durable. The first four frescoes in the Peer's Corridor cycle were painted in fresco but when the artist saw how dilapidated his work in the Upper Waiting Hall had become, he completed the final four panels in waterglass. Cope was the longest serving of the Westminster artists and was employed to restore many of the Palace's frescoes between the 1860s and 1880s.

'The Spirit of Chivalry' (1847)

The 1840s saw a huge popular interest in the Middle Ages and, fuelled by the novels of Sir Walter Scott such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, the concept of chivalry in particular. For the Victorians, chivalry represented a code of behaviour that formed an ideal guide to modern life.

Chivalry is depicted twice in the House of Lords Chamber - as an abstract virtue and exemplified in an historical event. Daniel Maclise's "The Spirit of Chivalry" acts as the abstract counterpart to Charles Cope's fresco depicting "Edward III Conferring the Order of the Garter on the Black Prince".

The Victorian definition of the chivalric code, as represented at Westminster, emphasised virtues such as piety, generosity, mercy and courtesy. Maclise's work provides a visual summary of these virtues.

Chivalry's political connotations are reinforced by the personifications of Church, State and Army, while its cultural elements are also represented, as the figures of the poet, bard and architect make clear.


Cope wrote that "Time's effacing fingers began to obliterate at one end, while we were painfully working at the other". The Westminster frescoes still exist today as the result of an extensive programme of restoration that began, for many of the paintings, soon after their completion.

The history of the repainting and restoration ran on until quite recently.

As soon as the deterioration of some of the paintings became apparent, some artists restored their own work. Two Westminster artists in particular, Cope and Horsley, were engaged to carry out repairs on the Palace's frescoes between the 1860s and 1880s, although this didn't prevent the need for further restoration programmes (mainly cleaning and retouching) from 1894 to 1895 and again a decade later.

The paintings continued to receive attention in the 1930s and 1960s.

Maclise's two historical paintings in the Royal Gallery decayed badly during the artist's lifetime, a process not delayed by his switch from fresco to waterglass techniques. The faded paintings were restored in the 1960s and their condition stabilised.

Of all the frescoes at Westminster, those in the Poet's Hall (or Upper Waiting Hall) were particularly fragile. The Hall was used as a testing ground for fresco technique and feature some of the earliest works. Lack of ventilation in the Hall meant that the works soon decayed, and restoration was begun in the 1860s. By 1895, apart from Tenniel's "St Cecilia", the frescoes were boarded up (and inspected in the mid-1950s) until restoration began in 1984.

Mirrors of Victorian society

In 1848, William Dyce was commissioned to produce a cycle of frescoes for the Royal Robing Room, the chamber where the Queen dons the Crown and ceremonial robes. The paintings were intended to act as a reminder of royal duties while reaffirming the monarchy as an institution. The frescoes nominally show scenes from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur, but they provide a consciously partial reading of the legend. King Arthur is shown not as a fictitious pagan Celt but as a Christian Briton - a depiction that suggests a homogenous view of Christianity not evident in the religious crises of the 1840s. The Victorian view of art serving a moral purpose is clear in the way the cycle is handled. Of the panels depicting the search for the Holy Grail, "Generosity", "Religion" and "Courtesy" were completed by 1852 and "Mercy" in 1854. Like Daniel Maclise, Dyce died before his work was completed: his final fresco, "Hospitality", was completed by Cope in 1865.

The chamber of the House of Lords was the first room of the new palace to be decorated. The fresco panels in this chamber show virtues that were central to Victorian ideas of society. The merits of justice, religion and chivalry reflected the respective actions of the law lords, the spiritual lords (bishops) and hereditary peers. These attributes were shown allegorically on one wall: "The Spirit of Chivalry" (right), "The Spirit of Justice" (both by Maclise) and "The Spirit of Religion (by JC Horsley).

Schools can arrange tours of the Palace of Westminster through their local MP or a member of the House of Lords. The Parliamentary Education Unit also offers a range of educational visits for students throughout the year.

Visits for KS4 students take place in the autumn and are advertised in The TES in March. Teachers are advised to contact the Parliamentary Education Unit early for details. An information leaflet is available.

Contact: Parliamentary Education Unit, Norman Shaw Building (North), London, SW1A 2TT Tel: 020 7219 2105 Email: edunit@parliament.ukFax: 020 7219 0818

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