Friday, August 5, 2011
Trafalgar Square, London, and beyond
A new view (2)
Having taken in the view of St Martin in the Fields described in the previous post, I turned through 90 degrees and saw in the distance the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, the structure popularly known, after the great bell it contains, as Big Ben. A touch on the zoom ring and there was another photograph of a familiar building from a new viewpoint.*
The clock tower is of course the most famous part of maybe our most famous building. The Houses of Parliament, built after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1834, took decades to complete. The basic design was by Charles Barry, but Barry enlisted the aid of A W N Pugin as a specialist in the Gothic style, and Pugin became more and more involved in the design to the extent that it became as much his own as Barry’s. Burning the candle at both ends, Pugin poured out drawings of decorative details of all kinds, creating the glorious interior of the House of Lords, designing wallpapers, mouldings, carvings, and furniture, and bringing Barry’s scheme to full Gothic life. The clock tower seems to have been completely designed by Pugin, who based its distinctive shape and refined details on a tower he did for Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire.
By 1852, Pugin, sick with what was to be his final illness, was still overworked with drawings for Barry. His biographer, Rosemary Hill, quotes an extraordinary letter, which veers from lucidity to incoherence, in which Pugin describes his overwork: “I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole mechanism of the clock.”† He meant to write that he was to design the mechanism of the clock, but his slip seems apposite – Pugin was doing drawings at a relentless and mechanical pace, although the content, full of artful touches, was far from mechanical.
A few months after his frantic letter, Pugin was dead. He never lived to see the tower that would become his most celebrated work. We take it for granted now and see it everywhere, reproduced on news programmes, sketched in the background to political cartoons. But glimpsing it from the National Gallery steps made me see it anew: its artful vertical lines, its distinctive roof, the way the tower swells slightly to emphasizes the clock, the manner in which the gilded details catch the light of the sun. My new view of the tower revealed something else too: the structure’s lightness of touch in contrast with the grey ventilation towers of Portcullis House, the 2001 parliamentary office building across the road from the tower. It rises above them as a medieval church spire might against a background of dark, Satanic mills.
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*In spite of the marked difference in the cloud cover, this photograph was taken just a few seconds after the one in the previous post. England’s skies are ever varied, ever changing.
†Rosemary Hill’s book, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (2007) is one of the best and most enjoyable architect-biographies of recent years.