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18 September 2014
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St Stephen's Chapel: From the Crown to the People

By Jacqueline Riding
Rebuilt once more

Image of Blaikley's portrait of Queen Victoria at State Opening of Parliament in 1845
Detail from Alexander Blaikley's portrait of Queen Victoria at State Opening of Parliament in 1845 ©
The old Commons Chamber too was to find expression within the new palace. The design, by AWN Pugin and Charles Barry, consciously reflected the simplicity of the old Chamber in the predominance of undecorated oak, and kept the upper galleries and the rows of benches either side of Speaker's Chair as in the old Chamber.

The new House of Commons Chamber therefore formed part of a design history that stretched back via Sir Christopher Wren, to the reign of Edward III. But the creation of the Victorian Chamber was by no means the final chapter in the story of St Stephen's Chapel..

'... the limited space and seating ... was now seen as a virtue along with the confrontational layout.'

It was bombed in 1941, but Churchill insisted that the chamber should be 'restored in all its essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity'. He recognised that the intimacy of the old chamber had created an environment for lively and intense debate, whilst the rows of opposing benches had created the two-party system - in Churchill's eyes the bedrock of British parliamentary democracy.

Thus the limited space and seating - so often berated by Members in the past - was now seen as a virtue, along with the confrontation-inducingl layout. Indeed it had come to define the very nature of government and parliament. As Churchill succinctly observed, 'We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us'.

About the author

Jacqueline Riding was formerly Assistant Curator of the Palace of Westminster and is now Director of the Handel House Museum, London. Her publications include Art in Parliament: The Permanent Collection of the House of Commons, Jarrold 1996, Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture, Merrell 2000, and The Handel House Museum Companion, 2001.


Published: 2005-04-02

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