The Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, is a world-famous piece of architecture. But who built it? Following the huge fire that destroyed the old Palace of Westminster in 1834, Charles Barry won the competition to design the new Houses of Parliament. Alongside AWN Pugin, and later Giles Gilbert Scott, these architects created the Houses of Parliament we know today.
Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860)
Charles Barry was born and raised in Westminster, right by the site of the iconic Palace he would later go on to design. He was a talented artist from a young age, and at 15 years old he was taken on by a firm of surveyors.
After travelling in Europe and the Middle East as a young man, Barry returned to the UK and began work as an architect. He won several architectural competitions to design new churches, and to rebuild King Edward VI’s Grammar School in Birmingham (now demolished). It was here that Barry first met and worked with Pugin, and sculptor John Thomas. All three men would later work on the new Palace of Westminster. It was also in Birmingham that Barry developed his non-ecclesiastical Gothic Revival style.
When Barry won the competition to design the new Palace of Westminster, he could not have known that the project would dominate the rest of his life.
He saw most of his new Palace completed before he died in May 1860. The rest of the work was completed by his fourth son, Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880), who had worked with his father on the building for many years. Sir Charles Barry is buried in Westminster Abbey.
In this portrait by Henry William Pickersgill (1782-1875) we see Barry holding rolled architectural plans, and standing next to an image of Victoria Tower.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852)
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born in London. He had little formal education, but learned to draw and paint from his father, who was an architectural draughtsman and watercolourist. At just 16 years old Pugin designed furniture for the newly restored Windsor Castle. He later tried various enterprises, including designing scenery at Covent Garden Opera House, and a stone masonry business specialising in Gothic carving.
When Charles Barry decided to enter the competition to rebuild the Palace of Westminster, he employed Pugin as a draughtsman on his designs. After winning the competition, Barry used Pugin to draw the plans in even greater detail, so he could estimate how much the ambitious project would cost. Sadly, these plans have not survived. Pugin then left the project for several years and pursued other professional work.
Pugin won several architectural commissions for large private houses and churches, and throughout his career he created over 100 buildings. Alongside this architectural work, he published books on Gothic design. Contrasts (1836), and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) were particularly influential.
This portrait of Pugin from 1845 is displayed in a frame which he designed himself. The background to his portrait was also one of his designs. In this painting we see him working on a set of drawings. He must have been busy, because it is said that he only gave 20 minutes for this portrait sitting. We can also see his coat of arms featured in the top right of the canvas, and at the top of the frame.
In 1844 Pugin was invited to design the interiors of the new Palace of Westminster. He embraced the task, producing a vast array of items including carved panelling, wallpaper designs, painted and gilded ceilings, various designs for encaustic floor tiles, and a huge range of furniture. But his increasing workload put a great strain on him, and he became physically ill and mentally exhausted. His mental deterioration led to a period in Bethlem Hospital, and he died in September 1852.
The Palace interiors
Alongside commissioning Pugin to create designs for the Palace interior, Barry also planned for an extensive scheme of artworks to be included. He built niches throughout for sculptures, appointing John Thomas as Superintendent of Stone Carving. He also provided spaces for large wall paintings. The Fine Art Commission, led by Prince Albert, commissioned the artwork for the Palace.
The Two Architects: Barry and Pugin
There has been some debate over the years about whether Barry or Pugin should deserve the greater credit for the new Palace of Westminster. This was started by the children of the two men, who began arguing over the issue of legacy after both architects had died.
Barry was the lead architect of the new Palace and guided its construction from initial design, all the way to near-completion at the time of his death. Pugin’s extensive interior design is highly influential to the overall feel and finish of the Palace. The vision of both men was woven into the Palace throughout the difficult and lengthy journey of construction. They also collaborated constantly, for example, on the design of the Sovereign’s Throne and its canopy. For this important piece of furniture, Barry drew the overall outline, while Pugin transformed it by adding details, before Barry further refined the design.
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960)
The third architect who significantly influenced the architecture of the Palace of Westminster was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Scott rebuilt the House of Commons after it was devastated in the London Blitz during World War 2. Barry and Pugin’s Commons Chamber had been destroyed by fire caused by air raids in May 1941. Read the story of the night the Palace was bombed here.
Giles Gilbert Scott built many churches throughout his career, including Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. He is also known for designing the famous red telephone box, and as the architect of Bankside Power Station – now Tate Modern. He designed Cambridge University Library, Oxford’s New Bodleian Library, and Waterloo Bridge.
In April 1944, Scott was appointed to rebuild the House of Commons Chamber, chosen by a select committee. By October 1944, he had put forward his designs. About them, he said:
“The Gothic detail of the old Chamber was lifeless and uninteresting, and the richness was spread evenly over the whole area without relief or contrast. It has been our endeavour to remedy this, with the result that, though still Gothic in style, the effect will be entirely different from what existed before.”
Scott was asked to build the new Commons Chamber on the same proportions as the old, and with the same layout of benches opposite one another. The only change to layout was increased space in the galleries, for reporters and members of the public. The Commons also required up-to-date services such as heating, lighting and ventilation, and needed more room for ministerial offices, clerks’ rooms and a secretarial pool. Scott described it as the most complex building he had designed, because “to fit in all the arrangements was a most intricate business, and still more intricate to tuck them out of sight”.
Scott and furniture in the House of Commons
Like Pugin and Barry before him, Scott was interested in more than just the architecture of the Chamber. He also personally designed furniture and fittings for the space, its surrounding lobbies, and offices throughout the Commons. He produced items including lights, door handles, seating and much more.
Before and after
This painting depicts a debate in 1858, with the Commons Chamber full of MPs. Members who cannot find a seat are standing, papers are strewn around the Chamber, and Speaker Denison is in the chair. The Chamber’s ceiling is sloped, to improve acoustics. Barry and Pugin have included Gothic wood carving in the space, although it is less extravagant than the Lords Chamber interior.
This work of art shows us Question Time in the Chamber in 1986. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is at the despatch box, answering questions from MPs. We see how the Chamber looked before broadcasting on television was introduced. Although this painting is primarily an enormous group portrait, it also shows us Scott’s Chamber.
We can see the similarities of the pitched roof, but it is less ornate than Barry and Pugin’s original design. We can also see more light streaming in from windows, and that Scott has increased the seating in the galleries. While the panelling in the new Chamber is less intricate than the previous space, it is still in the Gothic style.
Celebrating 150 years of the new Palace of Westminster
In 2020, we celebrated 150 years since the Palace was completed. To mark this anniversary, the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Chairman of Ways and Means Dame Eleanor Laing, First Deputy Chairman Dame Rosie Winterton, and Second Deputy Chairman Nigel Evans selected their favourite paintings of the Palace of Westminster from the Parliamentary Art Collection.
We also celebrated the works of art around the country which depict the iconic architecture of the Houses of Parliament. Discover some of the secrets and stories of the Palace of Westminster alongside wonderful works of art, from Claude Monet in Cardiff to Edward Bawden in Essex. View the special anniversary gallery on Art UK.