A very delicate restoration
A touch-up job from the past has much to teach us about bringing our history up to date, says Lisa Jardine in her Point of View column.
Just before it closed last week, I went to an exhibition of Treasures of Lambeth Palace Library - the historic library of the Archbishops of Canterbury. The manuscripts and books on display were extraordinary, both in themselves and for their associations with important moments in history. Mary Queen of Scots's death warrant, signed by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, was on display, and so was a sixteenth-century treatise on prohibited degrees of marriage, in the margin of which Henry VIII had scrawled in Latin, "This book is worthless" because its argument failed to support his royal divorce.
But it was the library building in which the exhibition was held which stopped me in my tracks. The Great Hall which now houses the library was rebuilt following the English Civil War, by Archbishop William Juxon, as a thanks-offering to God for the Restoration of King Charles II. As Bishop of London, Juxon had given the last rites to Charles I at his public execution in January 1649. The embroidered gloves Charles handed to him on the scaffold could be seen in a glass case in the exhibition.
The 78-year-old archbishop could never have dreamed then that the monarchy - and with it the Anglican Church - would be restored in his lifetime. The Great Hall had been badly damaged during the Commonwealth, and Archbishop Juxon, advised by two stalwart antiquarians, Elias Ashmole and William Dugdale, carefully oversaw a design that celebrated the Restoration as an unexpected continuity with the past (though he died before the project was completed). The result is a soaring medieval hall, with a dramatic hammer-beam roof, a perfect replica of great halls of a bygone era.
Samuel Pepys saw the new hall for the first time when he was invited to dine there by Juxon's successor, Gilbert Sheldon, in July 1665. He was impressed by its splendour, and particularly remarked on its curious style: "I viewed the new hall, a new old-fashion hall as much as possible. Begun, and means left for the ending of it, by Bishop Juxon."
"New old-fashion" was Pepys's way of saying that the archbishop's new dining room was a 'retro' piece of architecture. It was also Pepys's way of indicating that such a building was, in 1665, something of an anomaly.
We may imagine that it was Pepys's host, Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon, who drew attention to the outmoded architecture of his new hall. Sheldon was in the process of building his own thanks-offering for the Restoration, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (begun in 1664 and completed in 1668) at the time, and was an enthusiast for a more up-to-the minute, European-influenced style. The Sheldonian is the building that made Sir Christopher Wren's reputation as an architect, and was designed to house the degree ceremonies of the University of Oxford. Whilst its inspiration is classical, it is confidently modern in conception and execution. I have spoken before of its great unsupported spanning ceiling, whose truss framing has been described by a modern structural engineer as one of "the most impressive exhibitions of structural virtuosity" of its age. Its D-shaped exterior form, according to another commentator, demonstrates 'a sharp, unmistakable break from the Gothic past'.
Wren was not above refurbishing existing buildings sympathetically, however, when the need arose. A striking example of this is Kensington Palace, the home of joint monarchs William and Mary after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.
In early June 1689, the Treasury purchased the Earl of Nottingham's house at Kensington, on the western edge of Hyde Park for the new royal couple - a medium-sized Jacobean villa, standing in modest gardens, whose beauty John Evelyn had once admired. Queen Mary was delighted because the house afforded her complete privacy while being within walking distance of Whitehall. Wren was instructed to enlarge this simple, rectangular, two-storey building into a palace befitting the new royal family. With the young Nicholas Hawksmoor as his Clerk of the Works, Wren's solution was to leave the main house intact, and to add new-build pavilions to its four corners, to provide additional accommodation.
Mary's letters to William (who was away on military campaign against the French) are full of colourful details about the progress of the works, familiar to anyone who has had the builders in - "Your closet as yet smells of paint, for which I will ask pardon when I see you.
"The outside of the house is the fiddling work which takes up more time than one can imagine and while the scaffolds are up the windows must be boarded up. But as soon as that is done your own apartment may be furnished, and though mine cannot possibly be ready yet awhile, I have found out a way if you please, which is that I may make use of Lord Portland's [apartments] and he lie in some of the other rooms. We may lie in your chamber and I go through the Council Room down, or else dress there."
When Mary died of smallpox in 1694, William completely remodelled the apartments Mary had so lovingly created - her withdrawing room with its intricate Hawksmoor designed display cabinets full of fashionable blue porcelain, her supping room, chocolate room, privy apartments and "little garden" - to suit his own, now bachelor, needs. As usual Wren was put in charge, and as usual it was a rush job. In mid-August Lord Godolphin reported that "the joiners are now in every room of the house, and Sir Christopher Wren who lies there, told me last night they should be out in one month's time".
An imposing new south front was also added to the building in 1695, probably designed by Hawksmoor. So the grand elevation behind the golden gates, which became familiar around the world in 1997, as the backdrop to the hundreds of thousands of bouquets of cellophane-wrapped flowers laid immediately after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is not in fact even an original feature of Wren's remodelled buildings. Further tinkering went on in the next century. Behind Hawksmoor's façade, George I commissioned a complete rebuilding of the original house in the 1720s, to provide a suite of lavishly decorated state rooms. Queen Victoria's father, then Duke of Kent, remodelled the rooms on the ground floor, and added a new porch and entrance on the eastern side of the Great Court when he and his family took up residence there in the early 1800s.
Kensington Palace, then, has been subject to alteration, both inside and outside, throughout its history. Which to me seems to call into question the recent decision of the planning committee of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to turn down for the second time a planning application supported by the Prince of Wales, which would have added an iron and glass loggia, designed by the classicising architect John Simpson, to the East side of the Palace, to create a new visitor entrance.
Councillors decided, against the advice of their professional planners, that the loggia "would unnecessarily damage the facade of the Grade I Listed Sir Christopher Wren building". As a leading member of the committee stated: "The loggia is of a design and character wholly inappropriate to the magnificent building it is to be placed in front of."
In the case of this much-adjusted building, is this evidence of our own age trying to pickle the past in aspic? Or is the refusal of planning permission a polite prompt by the Councillors of the Royal Borough to suggest that those who make additions to our architectural landscape need to speak more of our own time, in the way the Wren did for Archbishop Sheldon and his later royal patrons?
We might remember that this was the same planning authority that in 1999 approved the Victoria and Albert Museum's plans to create a bold modern addition to its fabric in the form of Daniel Libeskind's Spiral, with its startlingly adventurous geometry - a building likened by some to an exploding cardboard box.
As Wren himself observed in his lifetime, great buildings will stand the test of time, when many documents and records of the period have turned to dust. As an historian I am with Samuel Pepys in hoping that we will leave our own legacy of the boldest and best, most forward-looking contributions to the built environment, rather than bequeathing to posterity too many "new old fashion halls".