In May 1941, bombs fell on the Houses of Parliament during attacks on London in the Blitz. Although most of the Palace survived, a huge fire in the House of Commons led to the destruction of the Chamber. Today, only a few artefacts from the lost chamber remain. Recent conservation of some surviving ceiling panels helps to reveal the craftsmanship with which they were made.
The Victorian Chamber
The House of Commons Chamber, designed by architect Charles Barry, originally featured a flat ceiling. This design, however, came under much criticism for having poor acoustics, so a new ceiling with sloped sides was discussed and it was completed in 1852.
Barry used wooden ceiling panels to create a new, pitched ceiling. The panels featured designs created by A.W.N Pugin of a Tudor Rose and a Portcullis, each surrounded by foliage. The two motifs alternated across the ceiling.
Despite these alterations, the Chamber still suffered from problems with lighting and ventilation. In the 1920’s there was a project to improve the lighting in the chamber, and some of these panels were put away into storage.
Only a couple of decades later, Barry’s Commons Chamber was completely destroyed during the Blitz of London in World War Two. The extent of the devastation is depicted in this annotated etching by William Washington.
The ceiling panels which had been placed into storage are the only ones to survive. They are now part of our Architectural Fabric Collection which cares for detached, historically significant elements of the Palace of Westminster. As one of the only remaining pieces of Barry’s Commons Chamber, they are a significant part of the Collection and we are delighted to have had them conserved by Orbis Conservation Ltd.
Following many years in storage, the panels first needed a careful clean. After ensuring that the panels were structurally stable, the team undertook testing of cleaning methods to see what the panels would respond to best. Once an appropriate solution was found, cleaning started in earnest, revealing the Pugin designs in more detail.
In many cases the cleaning revealed evidence of overpainting, which was likely a result of late Victorian renovations. The cleaning also helped to reveal the original texture of the painted surface. The designs would have been stippled onto the wooden surface through a stencil. This was not an unusual practice for Pugin designs, as they often featured repeated motifs across a large area.
The cleaning treatment revealed minor surface damage on some panels. The team considered each panel individually, looking at whether intervention was the best course of action, and the extent to which the readability of the design was impacted.
After considering all options, the panels that featured losses that were disfiguring to the surface were carefully filled and retouched to ensure that the designs could be viewed as originally intended. When all the cleaning and repair work was complete, a layer of microcrystalline wax was applied to each panel. This provides an extra level of protection that will help prevent damage in the future.
Form and function
The project was headed by Kirsten Walsh, a specialist conservator:
“This project has been particularly rewarding- it was wonderful to be able to achieve such a transformation revealing what had been hidden under a century of dirt.
It was important that any repair would be subtle and sympathetic, as well as reversible. We made the decision to treat only the most disfiguring losses and surface damage, mindful of preserving evidence of the object’s history.
It’s important when taking on objects with such a complex history as these panels that the context is carefully considered. We were mindful not to lose important original material. For instance, the backs of many of the panels have horsehair adhered to them, a material frequently used in the fabric of historic buildings as an insulation material.”
Beyond their decorative function, the panels were an important part of the ventilation system. Some panels still have horsehair insulation on the back, and some also have inscriptions. This system was particularly sophisticated for the time, but was also destroyed entirely during the fire. These panels therefore show us both the decorative and functional aspects of Barry’s chamber design.
This conservation work has ensured that these significant pieces of the Palace of Westminster’s history will survive into the future.