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Arts review: Westminster Abbey’s new Diamond Jubilee Galleries sparkle

31 May 2018

The Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the rafters of the Abbey impress Nicholas Cranfield

Alan Williams, courtesy of Westminster Abbey

View of the new galleries and the Weston Tower (see gallery, and below, for more)

View of the new galleries and the Weston Tower (see gallery, and below, for more)

WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL held an exhibition in 2004 to commemorate the wedding there of Queen Mary Tudor with Philip of Spain on the feast day of St James the Apostle 450 years before. I went as much to satisfy myself that there really had been a person of the name of Philip who had sat on the throne of England as to see the remarkable illuminations practised by their registrars.

The show was staged in the clerestory, and I thought at the time what a good use had been made of the space, in much the same way as the Treasury at Norwich Cathedral had, since 1973, been exhibited above the ancient Reliquary Arch in the north aisle of the presbytery. I pondered then how other cathedrals and collegiate churches might benefit by such discreet interventions.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in accessibility: anyone who has worked in the muniment room of the Westminster archives will remember all too well the narrow spiral staircase leading up to the triforium level, 16 metres above the ground.

The first photographs sent with the press information for these new galleries proudly featured the seven-storey lift tower, alongside the south side of Henry VII’s chapel. It is reached through a door in the Poets’ Corner, coming outside the Abbey building itself, where a corner of the massive stone platform that was inserted on the mud of Thorney Island to allow Henry III to build the third great abbey on the site has been revealed.

Alan Williams, courtesy of Westminster AbbeyViews of the new galleries and the Weston Tower

It is the first tower to be added to the building since the completion of the west end façade in the 1740s, and the Surveyor of the Fabric based his design on the rotated squares that are such a feature of the pre-Reformation retable, one of the greatest treasures on display. The octagon at Ely Cathedral, built after the collapse of the crossing tower there 13 February 1322, is another clear reference.

Imagine two squares of identical size laid one on top of the other, and turn the top one through 45º. An eight-pointed star shape emerges, reminiscent of the medieval mind’s enthusiasm for the eight days of creation (the last being that of resurrection), which is often captured in octagonal fonts, decorated with the seven sacraments and a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Ptolemy Dean, the surveyor in succession to the likes of Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, faced an immediate challenge. There was not enough room to build the tower in stone even when it was cleared of outhouses, and he was conscious that the area was immediately visible from the entrance to the House of Lords opposite.

The steel tower is clad in lead, with leaded windows rising its whole height, and a wooden staircase (108 steps) wrapped around the lift shaft itself. From it, it is possible to see into the octagonal Chapter House next door.

The inside walls are faced with bands of stone, recording the 17 different stones used throughout the building, rising from the Purbeck marble of the first abbey of the tenth century to modern-day Clipsham, including the Caen and Reigate stone used by the Normans, and the Portland Whitbed Tooled stone preferred by Hawksmoor.

From the tower, a bridge responds into the gallery space, its windows filled with some of the 31,000 shards of medieval glass found in the debris of the yard below.

The second substantial problem confronting the planners was how to open up a space that had, for the past seven centuries, been unused and off limits. The area (the triforium runs around the whole Abbey, but only the east end is being used for the galleries) had largely become a lumber room, covered in dust, and with dirty neglected windows. Richard Dimbleby got up there to a commentator’s box for the Coronation 65 years ago this Saturday. Sir John Betjeman claimed that the view into the Abbey was “the best in Europe”.

© The Dean and Chapter of WestminsterTwo figures from the feeding of the five thousand, a detail from the West-minster Retable, 1259-69, on display in the new galleries

Stuart McKnight and his London colleagues at MUMA designed the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries for the V&A (Arts, 12 January 2010) making the practice an obvious one to bring in here. The current project is the long overdue masterplan for the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Here, the challenge was to work in an irregular space that may have been originally planned to house four side chapels, in the same spaces as the area immediately beneath. It has very different light levels across the day and throughout the year. The intention to include rare books, manuscripts, and fabrics that are particularly sensitive to light has meant some very subtle use of spaces that can sometimes, with Christopher Wren’s tie-beams, feel smaller than they are.

The galleries display more than 300 objects owned by the Dean and Chapter, the earliest being a Romano-British sarcophagus that still has a later Anglo-Saxon buried within it, and the latest the questionable Diamond Jubilee portrait of the Queen by Ralph Heimans (b.1970).

Henry III’s foundation was dedicated on 13 October 1269. Fifteen full-time glaziers were recorded as working on the glass in 1253, and the exhibition includes recovered stained-glass windows of martyrdoms and the scenes of the annunciation and of Pentecost.

Exhibition photos © The Dean and Chapter of WestminsterThe marriage licence of HRH Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton, 2011, which was issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Court of Faculties in compliance with a royal warrant, and illuminated by Karl Stedman

Wall-paintings from that period were uncovered in 1938, necessitating the removal of two exceptional works by Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770) to add to the stuff being kept in the triforium.

The sheer abundance of what is on show dazzles and is allowed the space needed for it to be seen and understood comprehensively, with intelligent lighting (not always the case in modern display galleries) and a proper sense of atmosphere.

Here are the surviving wooden effigies that were carried at the funerals of princes and monarchs, ever since the 1327 murder of Edward II, lying recumbent as if in a mortuary: in the old museum, they were kept standing. The earliest in the collection is that of Henry V’s wife, Catherine of Valois (d.1437), as graceful as any sculpted Virgin Annunciate.

Near by is the detached effigy head of Henry VII (d.1509), probably designed by the Tuscan sculptor Pietro Torrigiani, who was responsible for his great tomb, using a death mask. Whoever painted it was paid £6 12s. 8d. Sadly, it was badly damaged in the Second World War by water, and long neglected, like all the other effigies. A painted glass portrait of his first daughter-in-law, Catherine of Aragon, had been intended for a window in the Henry VII Chapel, but ended up in Waltham Abbey. It was returned here in 1758.

Visiting the Abbey has never been cheap. Visitors were charged 3d. in 1697, and that price was doubled in 1723 to half a shilling, no doubt when the full bill of Wren’s restoration work became known. One of the quirks of Elizabeth I’s decision in 1560 to grant the Abbey and former cathedral the status of a Royal Peculiar (the charter is in one of the drawers) was to confirm that it was independent of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. That means, to this day, that it receives no money from Church or State. This project has come in at £22.9 million. By way of comparison, the newly opened galleries of the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens have cost £56 million.

Alan Williams, courtesy of Westminster AbbeyView of the new galleries and the Weston Tower

Timed tickets (priced at £5, in addition to the ticket cost for entering the Abbey) will be available when the new galleries open to the public on 11 June after the Queen opens them officially on the 8th. The numbers will be limited to 230, which makes good sense, given the noisy throng of tour groups below.

The press opening took place on 29 May, Restoration Day; and so it is fitting to find the suit of armour that General Monck wore. I spent more than an hour in the new spaces, walking between the timber trusses that Wren had added to Henry III’s plan. These new galleries are a much more fitting and gracious celebration of our sovereign’s Diamond Jubilee (2012) than the self-aggrandising madcap design for the intrusive stone lantern that had recently been proposed by the Dean and Chapter to crown the crossing. One hopes that this is, indeed, a happy restoration.

A fully illustrated guide, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, Westminster Abbey, edited by Susan Jenkins and Tony Trowles, is published by Scala Publications at £9.95 (978-1-78551-131-8).

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