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The Architectural Fabric Collection cares for a variety of different historical objects that relate to the Palace of Westminster, including architectural models. Models are an excellent record of changes that have occurred to Parliament’s architecture over time. A model depicting the Elizabeth Tower made by modelmaker James Mabey around 1857 has received careful restoration that was captured on film. In this story, read about the history of this intricate model, and watch the work undertaken to restore it.

James Mabey, Modelmaker 

James Mabey (1811-1871) was a master modelmaker. He worked on the site while the new Palace of Westminster was being built following the fire of 1834. Mabey produced small-scale models of the interior and exterior of the Palace made of plaster, wood and wire. He worked with architect Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), who was actively involved in the design process for many of these models. Mabey recorded that he was 

“….occupied in making the small models….working them out in many cases from [Barry’s] dictation and sketches made upon the spot, diverging frequently so far from the original design as to constitute a new construction of entire masses and parts.” 

It is believed that hundreds of working models were made to help with the design of the Palace. The three that are now in UK Parliament’s Architectural Fabric Collection are the last remaining exterior models. They were likely created as representations of the realised designs when construction was mostly complete. The models are of the three towers of the Palace; the Victoria Tower, Central Tower, and the Clock Tower – now called the Elizabeth Tower, and home to Big Ben. 

Three plaster models of the towers from the Palace of Westminster. The models are standing, lined up in a row. On the left is an off-white model of the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben. It is a tall, narrow tower with a clock face near the top and it stands on a square grey base. In the middle is a model of Central Tower, the smallest of the three models. It is octagonal at the bottom and rises up to a pointed spire. The central part of the tower has windows on every façade and gothic buttresses. On the right is the model of the Victoria Tower. This is the largest and most decorative model. It has four sides, with each containing two rows of 3 large arched windows. There is an intricately carved arched doorway at the base of one side of the tower. At the very top is a tall, empty flagpole. It is a slightly darker shade than the other two towers.
Architectural models of the three towers of the Palace of Westminster by James Mabey © UK Parliament AFC 001657, AFC 000002, AFC 000003 

In February 1858, the three models were used by Sir Charles Barry’s son, Edward, as illustrations to a lecture he gave at the Royal Institute of British Architects on the building of the new Palace. When describing the model of the Victoria Tower, he said: 

“The carefully executed model on the table by Mr Mabey, will give a better idea of its appearance than any description that I can write.” 

Commissioning the Restoration 

James Mabey made this model of the clock tower in approximately 1857. Like the models of the Victoria and Central Towers, it was originally unpainted, allowing the minute detail of the plasterwork to be seen. Paint was first applied in the mid-1900s to reflect a different scheme of decoration that was being considered for the Elizabeth Tower. We know that the Clock Tower model was intact during the centenary of Big Ben in 1959. In the early 1990s it was found broken with some pieces of the roof missing. When Parliament formed the Architectural Fabric Collection in 2014, the model was a priority for conservation. 

The restoration was entrusted to Timothy Richards, a master modelmaker renowned for creating miniature architectural models of iconic buildings around the world. Richards and his team create architectural models using traditional gypsum plaster, with the addition of contemporary methods and techniques. They had a unique understanding of how best to repair the Elizabeth Tower model and return it to its original state, as intended by James Mabey.  

They were commissioned to repair damages to the surface, replace lost pieces, reinstate minute metal details and recreate the roof section of the model. The team incorporated the broken sections of original plasterwork.  

A photograph taken in the model makers studio. The model of the clock tower is lying down horizontally on a table in the forefront of the photograph. The top of model is broken off in a straight line above the clock face. The model is completely white. In the background are some pink silicone moulds and the plaster pieces that have been moulded from them. There are various pieces of the missing roof of the tower. To the right of the model on the table is another smaller plaster model. On the desk behind the table are a selection of open books and pictures showing the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben. These are propped up for use as reference by the model maker.
Restoration work underway in the studio for the model of the Elizabeth Tower, photo courtesy of Timothy Richards Architectural Fine Art 

Elizabeth Tower Model Conservation 

To repair the main body of the Tower, moulds were taken from existing sections of the model to ensure replication of the exact details. Plaster was then applied to the moulds, creating the new sections. Each new part was carefully shaped to ensure the repair fitted exactly.  

To return the model back to its intended finish, it was colour matched to the models of the Victoria and Central Tower. The set of models would have initially all been white. However, due to the properties of plaster, with age and handling the other two models have developed a patina which has caused a slight darkening of the surfaces. It was decided that the Elizabeth Tower would be matched to this patina as part of the set. 

For the top section of the tower, the remaining plaster fragments helped the team to understand the original design and construction. A silicon mould was taken from one side of the roof fragments and used to create the new sections. The original fragments were then incorporated, retaining their mid-century painted finish to help show the history of changes to the model. To finish the decorative detailing at the top of the model, tiny fragments of the original wire work were drawn by hand and then adapted into digital drawings. These drawings were then used to make laser-cut metal reproductions of each part.  

Watch the restoration process

With contributions from Timothy Richards and his team, and Parliament’s Estate Historian Dr Mark Collins, this film takes you through the research and skill the restoration required.  

The completed model

The work carried out on this remarkable model ensures it can be enjoyed by future generations.  

Elizabeth Tower Tour 

The Elizabeth Tower has also undergone its own remarkable restoration. If you join a tour of the Elizabeth Tower, you will find more objects from the Architectural Fabric Collection on display. The exhibition includes a pattern wheel, two sections of cog from the clock mechanism, and a prototype shield created during the conservation work on the tower. 

Read more about the Architectural Fabric Collection. 

Find out about tours of the Elizabeth Tower.