Pugin and Hardman at the Palace of Westminster
Last Friday, 4th October 2019, I attended a symposium hosted by the Pugin Society with the Heritage and Collections team at the Palace of Westminster, and more specifically by Professor Julia Twigg, Pugin Society Events Organiser and Emily Spary, Documentation Assistant for the Palace. The symposium focussed on the contribution to the Palace of Hardman’s, a Birmingham-based family firm of metalworkers. Hardman’s made ‘toy’ (small) items in metal and ecclesiastical metalwork and worked with A.W.N. Pugin on St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, and provided metalwork and stained glass for the New Palace of Westminster, among other things.
The old Palace of Westminster was a royal palace from the 11th century and was rebuilt after a fire of 1512 as the seat of government. It burned down again in 1834, so a competition was launched for the design of a new Palace. Established architect Charles Barry (1795-1860) won and commissioned Pugin (1812-1852) to assist, which he did to such an extent that some people (including members of the Pugin Society) argue that he should be credited as co-architect rather than being sidelined as the Palace’s interior designer. Building of the new Palace commenced in 1840 and continued for three decades with neither Barry nor Pugin living long enough to witness its completion.
Passing through the Palace’s airport-style security and the cafe (where a cup of tea costs £2.07), the visitor arrives at the impressively vast Westminster Hall built in 1097-99 by Rufus II, the son of William the Conqueror. The symposium took place in the Jubilee Room (1888), which was redecorated in 1977 (the silver jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth II) following a 1974 bomb explosion, using wallpaper by Pugin and wood panelling from the Palace scheme.
The programme began with an account from Neil Phillips about his own involvement with objects and designs by Hardman and Pugin. Phillips bought Pugin, Hardman and Powell and supplied replacement items for churches and other sites in need of Hardman and Pugin items in metal and stained glass. He began as a boy of seven helping his father and developed a unique level of knowledge via his range of activities, as a fabricator, dealer, and networked expert. Phillips shared some of his detailed, practice-based knowledge with the focussed audience of the Pugin Society, in a presentation that was at times a dialogue with the members as memories were pieced together and facts corroborated.
Next, Jamie Jacobs spoke about Pugin and Hardman’s metalwork in the Palace. Jacobs is writing a doctorate about Pugin at the University of Kent supervised by Dr Timothy Brittain-Catlin and by me as an external supervisor. She pointed out that Pugin’s designs for metalwork with Hardman relied on a series of modular elements which could be combined in various ways through being stacked on a rod and secured with a nut and bolt to achieve different items more cheaply than individual bespoke designs. She also drew attention to Pugin’s acceptance of the use of base metals and surface finishes as necessary for accessibly priced items in the Hardman catalogue and how this contradicted his design philosophy of truth to materials which underpinned the subsequent work of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Unlike William Morris, whose Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. firm failed because its manufacturing techniques rendered its output inaccessible to all but the ‘swinish luxury of the rich’, Pugin was willing to relax his principles in favour of commercial viability, Jacobs concluded.
Dr Jim Cheshire (University of Lincoln) presented his research on ‘Glazing the New Palace of Westminster - Debates, Dynamics and Glass Painters’. He explored the difference between the ‘soft’, painted technique favoured for in the nineteenth century for its relative naturalism, and the ‘hard’ style Pugin favoured. As an example of the former, Pugin decried Sir Joshua Reynolds’ West Window at New College, Oxford (1777) as a ‘vile composition’ in part because like other ‘soft’ stained glass it aimed to emulate oil painting. Pugin required glass to fulfil its core characteristic of being transparent in order to accord with his design philosophy about truth to materials. This required, in turn, a change in the practices of stained glassmaking and glass painting. Pugin preferred a mosiac method which recalled medieval antecedents in its reliance on the plain coloured glass given shape and form through the use of lead borders. Some small painting was tolerated, for drapery etc. He worked on his stained glass with William Warrington, Thomas Willement and William Wailes before deciding to open his own stained glass workshop with Hardman. Hardman’s stained glass is simpler, pictorially, than the prevailing trend at the time. For this reason, the Palace of Westminster stained glass made by Hardmans is more heraldic than ‘softer’ examples.
The symposium closed with a presentation by Dr Mark Collins (Palace of Westminster), delivered in his absence by Emily Spary, on ‘Hardman’s designs in the Parliamentary archives’. Lively questions and answers ensued and a chance to look at a selection of drawings and other primary and secondary sources that Neil Phillips had brought for attendees to handle and read after the talks..
After the symposium, I was delighted to be able to join members of the Pugin Society for a tour of Hardman’s work around the Palace with Emily Spary. Symposium attendees had been warned that the ‘event may be cancelled at short notice due to Parliamentary business’. Thankfully, even though the proroguing of Parliament had been judged illegal by the Supreme Court the week before, the symposium and tour went ahead. The only constraint was the lack of access to the House of Lords, due to it being readied for the state opening of Parliament on 14th October 2019. This was a blow, as the upper house is where Pugin’s skills are most elaborately expressed, but we were allowed into the House of Commons (no photos) and got see the Speaker’s Chair, and the dispatch boxes as well as the front bench recently made even more famous by a lounging Jacob Rees-Mogg. Spary told us that today’s House of Commons was result in 1945 after being bombed in the blitz and that the rebuild incorporated gifts from the Commonwealth countries including furniture in the division lobbies, Australia gave the Speaker’s Chair, and India and Pakistan gave front and rear doors to the Chamber. New Zealand had been holding copies of the despatch boxes so following the bombing a further pair of copies were made of indigenous wood and given to the Palace. Read more about the history of the Palace of Westminster on Parliament’s informative website.
My last tour of the Palace of Westminster was in 1994/5 as a student on the MA History of Design run jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. We were taken around by furniture historian and Victorianist Dr Clive Wainwright (1942-1999), our larger than life tutor in 19th-century design, whose wife, Jane, was Director of Information Systems in the House of Commons library. Clive illustrated all of his lectures for us with his own photographs, taken on a camera he concealed about his person in one of the many pockets of his three-piece tweed suits. He assisted in the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster within the context of a reappraisal of the built environment undertake by the Victorian Society. The tour this week therefore recalled memories of the tour with Clive, 25 years ago. As Gillian Naylor put it, in her obituary for the Journal of Design History, Clive was, like many of the antiques he worked with, unique and irreplaceable.
I couldn’t be happier to have returned to the Palace, this time with my doctoral student Jamie Jacobs, and the Pugin Society, whose members were very welcoming. I was pleased to meet Emily Spary, Julia Twigg, Lady Alexandra Wedgwood, Patron of the Pugin Society (and, incidentally, examiner of Brittain-Catlin’s PhD) and Jim Cheshire at the symposium. I found Cheshire's work on Victorian material culture so useful for my keynote to the British Association of Victorian Studies last year. I am now very glad to finally be a member of the Pugin Society and on the basis of this symposium and tour, I can highly recommend membership to anyone with an interest in nineteenth-century design.