Past Events

DRN WIP Workshop: A Gothic Legacy: James Wyatt and the Palace of Westminster, 1799–1835

DRN Events – Murray Tremellen

  • 22 February 2022
  • 4:00 – 5:00 pm
  • Online

This is an event for DRN members only. You can find out more about the network here.

The DRN’s WIP Workshop series is an opportunity for members of the network to present papers on their research relating to British art histories. We are keen to encourage collaboration within our research community and hope that these WIP workshops will help researchers develop their work whilst simultaneously making all our members productively aware of new issues, ideas, directions and methodologies developing within the field of British art history.

Stylistic analysis is by no means a new methodology for architectural historians. Nevertheless, during the nineteenth century, the choice between Classical and Gothic styles became the subject of such heated public debate that it remains an unavoidable issue for any student of late Georgian or Victorian architecture. In particular, architectural historians have long recognised the need to re-evaluate the Georgian phase of the Gothic Revival. During the twentieth century, historians continued to judge Georgian Gothic buildings according to Victorian criteria: in other words, their merit was assessed on the basis of their archaeological accuracy. In 2002, Michael Hall suggested that there might, in fact, be greater continuity between the Georgian and Victorian phases of the Revival than previous historians had been prepared to credit. Murray’s research seeks to test this hypothesis by considering James Wyatt’s interventions at the Palace of Westminster between 1799 and 1813, and their subsequent history up to the destruction of the old Palace by fire in 1834. I hope to demonstrate that new evidence – both from hitherto-neglected buildings and previously-unexplored archives – can still yield fresh insights into some of the oldest debates in architectural history.

By the late eighteenth century, the Palace of Westminster had become an untidy agglomeration of medieval and later buildings, and was proving increasingly inadequate for the growing volume of parliamentary business. In the 1790s, George III considered rival proposals from John Soane and James Wyatt to substantially remodel the Palace. Soane’s neoclassical plans were rejected in favour of Wyatt’s scheme, which aimed to enhance the Palace’s medieval character by adding new Gothic buildings in a Picturesque manner.

Until now, the historical consensus has been that Wyatt’s works at Westminster were a failure. Drawing on new archival material, Murray will argue that parts of the scheme – particularly his rebuild of the Speaker’s House (1802-08) – were actually well-received by influential contemporaries. More importantly, Wyatt’s scheme fundamentally influenced thinking among contemporary MPs about what the stylistic character of Westminster should be. Although Classicism still retained supporters, Wyatt’s intervention helped to shift the balance of opinion decisively towards Gothic – and, specifically, to a model of Gothic that remained largely faithful to Wyatt’s ideas. Thus, Wyatt’s designs had a decisive – albeit indirect – influence on the design of Sir Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster, one of the most important architectural creations of Victorian Britain.

About the speaker

  • Murray Tremellen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at the University of York. He is principally an architectural historian, with interests spanning the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His previous research projects have explored the reconstruction of Euston station (1959–77) and the architecture of the Southern Railway (1923–48). His PhD research explores the history of the first Speaker’s House at Westminster, 1794–1834. This interdisciplinary project examines the appropriation, use, remodelling and eventual destruction of the house from both political and artistic perspectives. He hopes to explain how the facilities afforded by their official residence influenced the evolution of the Speaker’s role, and how, in turn, the political and social aspirations of successive Speakers influenced changes to the fabric and decoration of the house. These developments are considered within the context of the early Gothic Revival: he aims to highlight the importance of the Speaker’s House as one of the first major public buildings to adopt the Gothic style in the nineteenth century.

    Murray’s research is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council via the White Rose College of Arts & Humanities.