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.


Hels said...

Would Charles Barry have created same the glorious interior of the House of Lords, designing wallpapers, mouldings, carvings, and furniture that were similar to Pugin's choices?

So here is the question. If Barry’s original scheme would NOT have reached the full heights of Gothic glory himself, why did he chose A W N Pugin to aid him. Pugin was already known as a specialist in the Gothic style, correct?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Barry did the overall layout, but the scheme as originally conceived didn't have the details filled in. So more work was needed and the extent to which Barry would have been capable of this depends on one's opinion of Barry really. Rosemary Hill (naturally, because Pugin is her hero) thinks that Barry had little flair for the Gothic and needed Pugin to create these details. And there is little doubt that Pugin was the man for the job - no one else would have done it with such flair and such attention to detail.

Vinogirl said...

Having had a cousin who was an MP, I got the chance to go up on the roof and stand at the clock tower's's pretty impressive close up too.

bazza said...

My personal favourite view of the clock tower is from a slightly different part of Trafalgar Square looking down Whitehall followed by the view from the south side of Westminster Bridge.
I think that one of the reasons for the long time it took to build is that many of the medieval masonory skills had been lost through neglet of the gothic style; they had to be retrained to do the work.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

VG: You're lucky - that must have been a good view of the Clock Tower. Although I've been inside the building a couple of times I've only seen the big showpiece spaces and very fine they are too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Those are good viewpoints of the tower. I'm not so sure about the shortage of masons. Gothic architecture never really died, so the constructional techniques were known. And there must have been plenty of masons and carvers who could do decorative work - even if previously they'd worked more on classical buildings than Gothic their skills would have been transferable.

Evelyn said...

You didn't mention that it was one of the first prime examples of perpendicular architecture but it seems you are a little more focused in this entry on the architects themselves which is very interesting. I very seldom read much about the actual architects. Now why does it seem that the tragedy of death seems to come along when an artist such as Barry and Pugin reach new heights of glory? It makes me think of Chateau du Chambord and that fabulous staircase. It's almost a tragedy that daVinci did not get to see its finish. It may be one of the best examples of his genius.

Peter Ashley said...

If you turn your radio up to full volume as the Big Ben chimes are about to go off, you can hear the mechanism ratcheting up. I heard it first one Remembrance Sunday.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Evelyn: Yes, I concentrated on the architects because I'm fascinated by Pugin, especially after reading the biography I mentioned. In some ways Pugin was a typical Victorian achiever - into everything, working very hard, doing lots of things at once. In other ways he was on the margins of British society - as a Catholic convert, for example. And this probably just made him work even harder, to compensate. And overwork was one of the things that led to his early death.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Oh yes, I like listening to this on the big hi-fi, which reveals all kinds of odd things in the backgrounds of broadcasts and recordings (like people walking around while Jacqueline du Pré plays Elgar's Cello Concerto).