A New Dawn for the Houses of Parliament

Dr Caroline Shenton's picture
Created on Wednesday 20th July 2016 by:
Dr Caroline Shenton

Former Director of the Parliamentary Archives and Chair of the Executive Board.

Sir Charles Barry, by John Prescott Knight. Oil on canvas, c.1851. © The National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG 1227.

“It is my object, as an architect”, Charles Barry told MPs considering the decoration of the New Houses of Parliament in 1841, “to give the most striking effect to the building as a whole, and I think that the effect of architecture can in no way be so highly enhanced as by the arts of painting and sculpture”. Given the purpose of the Palace of Westminster and its national role, the subjects most applicable would be those which referred to famous events in British History and should – in his view - “most decidedly” not be allegorical. The purpose should be celebratory, and the walls should not all be decorated at the same time: each successive generation should have the opportunity of adding its own people and events to the scheme.

The walls of Westminster Hall could be experimented upon, he thought, or several of the corridors off the great Central Lobby he had designed. His plans for Westminster Hall were startling, despite having ruled out the possibility – suggested by one MP – of transferring all the burial monuments in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral there. He thought it would be best to utilise St Stephen’s Hall for art and sculpture, site of the former St Stephen’s Chapel which Barry had determined to ‘restore’ on the same footprint following the terrible fire of 1834.

“I should say that the Hall might be appropriated to the reception of statues of eminent public men of past times, to be arranged on each side, and at a short distance from the walls, and so fitted for the reception of a distinct subject of painting…the whole would have a peculiarly striking appearance, and tend to awaken old and interesting associations connected with
our national history.”

Sir Charles Barry, Architect of the New Houses of Parliament.

St Stephen's Hall, the Palace of Westminster, looking east. © Parliamentary Estates Directorate.

These ideas seem in autumn 1842 to have inspired one of the rare holidays which Barry took during his life, to the kingdom of Bavaria. He enjoyed the mountains just as much as he had crossing the Alps on his Grand Tour twenty-five years before, and toured Munich, Regensburg, Nuremburg and Constanz, sketching as he went. But he also took the opportunity to visit the newly-opened Valhalla, perched on a cliff above the Danube at Regensburg. This neo-classical temple honouring the achievements of ethnic Germans since ancient times contained a Hall full of statues and plaques commemorating kings, politicians, men of letters, artists and scientists – exactly the sort of thing Barry had envisaged for Westminster. Happily, his plans for Westminster Hall were not executed, but instead a Valhalla was created by Barry in St Stephen’s Hall, which during his lifetime was lined with monumental sculptures of Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Fox and other notable Parliamentarians – all, obviously, male. In the twentieth century, the Building of Britain murals completed the national celebration, again populated by a majority of men, with the honourable exceptions of Elizabeth I sending Raleigh off to find the New World and Queen Anne assenting to the union of Scotland and England. But the west wall over the door into St Stephen’s Hall remained without decoration for over 150 years.

New Dawn, by Mary Branson, installed over the Entrance to St Stephen's Hall. © UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

Now a new artwork by sculptor Mary Branson called New Dawn has been installed above the entrance to the quintessentially masculine St Stephen’s. Measuring over six metres high, the massive scale of New Dawn is intended to reflect the size of the campaign to get women the vote. The unique hand-blown glass scrolls that make up its dawning sun reflect the many individuals who were involved in the movement and the special contribution they made to modern democracy.

One of the 168 Glass Disks that make up New Dawn, by Mary Branson. © Mat Clark.

There are multiple layers of meaning to the light sculpture. New Dawn was unveiled on the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first petition to Parliament for women’s suffrage. The glass discs are a direct reference to the parchment scrolls which line the famous Act Room of the Parliamentary Archives in the Victoria Tower, and where the legislation which brought women the vote and a say in the laws that govern them is stored. The coloured glass roundels are mounted on a metal grid or Portcullis structure – the principal emblem of Parliament, selected by Charles Barry as the badge which identified his otherwise-anonymous entry for the 1835 competition to build a new Houses of Parliament, and which became thereafter its universal symbol. The Portcullis frame is raised over the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall, symbolising women’s long-awaited access to democracy. Together, the circular scrolls combine with the metal Portcullis to create 168 distinct ‘Venus’ symbols, representing the women who fought for their right to vote, while the vertical metal shafts of the Portcullis literally and metaphorically stake women’s claim to a place in this previously male space.

New Dawn, by Mary Branson. Detail of the Glass Disks mounted on the Portcullis Grid. © Mat Clark.

This is the first piece of abstract art commissioned for the Houses of Parliament. The title of the piece comes from the language of the campaigners themselves, many of whom conceived of the vote as offering a ‘new dawn’ for women. Its sun shape will rise and fall over a twelve and half hour cycle, linked to the tide of the Thames: the ebb and flow of the illumination reflects the struggle to achieve the campaign’s ends despite numerous setbacks.

Each scroll is individually lit, and the appearance of the artwork changes from moment to moment, encouraging onlookers to consider the work more deeply and to reflect on the value of the vote and women’s role in democracy. Finally, looked at from afar, the light installation cleverly forms a ‘rose window’ on what would once have been the west front of the gothic chapel, in a subtle nod to its history as the place of royal devotions in the medieval Palace of Westminster.

New Dawn, by Mary Branson, installed over the Entrance to St Stephen's Hall. © UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.

This isn’t the first time that women have tried to storm this bastion of maleness. St Stephen’s was the scene of many suffragette protests before the First World War and in 1909 a suffragette chained herself to the statue of the civil war hero, Lucius Falkland, in the Hall, her chain breaking off part of the spur of his boot when she was forcibly removed from it. But unlike those temporary protests, New Dawn is here to stay and, even though it is “decidedly allegorical”, Charles Barry would I hope have approved of our generation’s intention in marking one of the most celebrated events in twentieth century political history: the granting of ‘Votes for Women’ in 1918.

Caroline's latest book, Mr Barry's War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 was published by Oxford University Press on 8th September 2016.