Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

The Gentleman's Magazine

AND

HISTORICAL REVIEW.

Auspice Musâ.-Hor.

THE CHAPTER-HOUSE OF WESTMINSTER.

N interval of six hundred years (A.D. 1250 and 1865); a venerable age for any building! We may expect traces of time upon its front, prints of winter storms and summer suns, a loss of early beauty perhaps more than redeemed by the picturesque weather tints and the soft grey hues gathered in long years upon mouldings from which has departed their original sharpness, and stones which no longer dazzle with their pure whiteness. But in the midst of the grandest collection of buildings which the world can exhibit, modern and ancient, standing side by side, under the shadow of the Abbey of Westminster, the Saint Denis and Santa Croce of England, lies a precious structure so hideously disfigured, such a perfect wreck of former magnificence, that few persons even dream of its existence, and only the archæologist can believe that it is all that remains of the once "incomparable Chapter-house" built by Henry III., and thus lovingly described by Matthew Paris, who saw it in its prime. Here is a building which should command our affection, regard, and reverence, in which for centuries moved the stately march of our national history, as exhibited by the meeting of Parliament, one which is an heirloom of the best era of English art, to be sacredly preserved and religiously transmitted to our children after us—

"The wreck a glory, and the ruin graced

With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced."

It is a monument of faith and energy, erected amid all the disadvantages of troublous times and the obstacles offered by an N. S. 1866, VOL. I.

B

imperfect knowledge of the mechanical arts. It is now a disgrace to our capital; it has not suffered from injudicious additions and imaginary improvements effected by a debased taste; it does not exhibit the mere ravages of time, or sudden injuries inflicted during some savage outburst of a devastating fanaticism; but it has been deliberately converted into an almost shapeless ruin. The visitor to London, or the oldest inhabitant who passes up the narrow alley which leads to Poet's Corner, as he passes a blank wall, corroded and begrimed with smoke, pierced with a shabby doorway, would hardly believe that on the other side lies a chapter-house, the gem of such structures, once as magnificent as those of York and Lincoln, Salisbury and Wells. We well remember our first impressions on entering it some twenty years ago, to visit its kindhearted, cheery custodian, Mr. Devon, who was only less proud of the treasures in his keeping than of the medal which he had won in the naval service. A gloomy interior, with ugly windows, walled up or thick with smoke and dirt; detestable little wooden partitions, bulk-heads, presses, cupboards, closets, shelves, monstrous staircases, galleries worthy of a little Bethel in the meanest bye-lane of London; a foul timber roof, lumber, packing-cases, parchment heaps and other rubbish; a floor of planking deep in dust, and in the centre a solitary memorial of the grand past, a tall pillar of clustered shafts, its head lost in the ceiling, and its base concealed by a circle of book-ledges.

There are few Englishmen of education who have not travelled at least as far as Paris, and very few indeed among such persons who have not seen with astonishment and delight the superb restoration of that exquisite gem of art, the Sainte Chapelle, by M. Viollet-le-Duc. In 1253, King Henry III. saw the new glazing placed glowing with colour in the traceried windows of the Chapterhouse, passing through its unrivalled vestibule, on which the sculptor's hammer had but just ceased to sound. In 1254, with St. Louis, he compared its beauties with those of the Sainte Chapelle, which had been scarcely completed. Now let an Englishman come home fresh from the French renovated "miracle of art," and contrast it with the disfigured marvel of Westminster! Or rather let him turn to Mr. Scott's proposed restoration, given in the "Gleanings from Westminster Abbey," and see it once more in its glory on paper!-its tall graceful central pillar of Purbeck marble, with delicate fillets and a capital richly carved with foliage, from which

spring branching ribs; the groined vault with sculptured bosses, and coloured scrolls and arabesques; the glorious windows with beautiful tracery and glass of a thousand hues ; its arcaded stalls with Purbeck shafts, diapered spandrils, and frescoes representing the wonderful scenes of the Apocalypse, and the Saviour revealing the mysteries of redemption to the heavenly host; its glassy pavement of encaustic tile, its noble double portal, niches, and spandrils, enriched with imagery and carved work; and beyond, through the open doors, see the exquisite vestibule, a fitting approach to such a creation of genius and magnificence. Then from that dream of splendour let him now look down here, and through the lifted trap-doors at portions of encaustic pavement, still almost perfect; or peer behind wainscotting at portions of the 14th-century frescoes, or fragments of sculpture, and he will realise how, by the base neglect and Vandalism of the last century, all grace, delicacy and refinement have been converted, simply by ill-usage and barbarism, into decay, mutilation, disfigurement, and positive ruin.

The abbot and monks had only a short tenure of exclusive occupation of this superb building. Before 1340, the House of Commons held its sessions within it; as the Dean of Westminster said, at a meeting lately held for the purpose of considering its restoration, "all our early struggles for liberty must have taken place within these walls. There is only one instance recorded of the Commons meeting elsewhere. When they met to impeach Piers Gaveston, in the reign of Henry II., they met in the refectory; but, as a general rule, they met here down to the end of the reign of Henry VIII. Here took place many memorable acts of the epoch of the Reformation. Within these walls were passed the first Church Discipline Act, and the first Clergy Residence Act. Here were passed the Act of Supremacy, and the Act of Submission; and here, on the table in this Chapter-house, lay the famous black book which sealed the fate of all the monasteries in England, including that of Westminster, which shot such a thrill of horror through the assembly, and produced a sensation which is so well described in Mr. Froude's history. The last time the Commons sat in this house was the last day of the life of Henry VIII., and their last act here was the attainder of the Duke of Norfolk. They were sitting here while preparations were going on in the Abbey for the coronation of Edward VI., which Henry intended should be solemnised before his own death, to render the succession more

certain; but on the news of the king's death those preparations were suddenly broken off." Their sittings having already been transferred to the desecrated chapel of St. Stephen's, in 1547, about the time of Elizabeth and her successor, the unfortunate Chapter-house was converted into a public record office. About the year 1740, the vaulting was taken down on the plea of being in a dangerous condition, but about thirty years before, the erection of a hideous gallery had effectually masked all the beauties of the lower portion of the building. One of the larger flying buttresses fronting the Lady Chapel of the Abbey had been destroyed, and the corresponding buttress on the south-west angle was unequal to bear the weight of the wall, which in consequence partially gave way, and so endangered the stability of the vaulting. An architect could easily have repaired the wall, and rebuilt the buttress.

The Chapter-house in England was almost essentially a national peculiarity, unlike the alleys or oblong rooms which take their place on the Continent, forming the conventual or capitular Parliament-house, and a distinctive and splendid building. That of Westminster is of considerable architectural history; firstly, because it replaces the round Chapter-house erected by Edward the Confessor, and is of a polygonal form, like that of Worcester, these two being the only exceptions to the Benedictine rule of building rectangular chapterhouses; and secondly, because it is built (almost exceptionally) over a crypt, the only other instance being at Wells, that of St. Paul's having perished in the Great Fire; and this crypt embodies the original structure of the Confessor. Its diameter, 58 ft., equals that of Salisbury; only the chapter-house of Lincoln, which is 60 ft. in diameter, exceeding it in dimensions. As at Wells, Salisbury, and York, all of the 13th century, it is an octagon.

The question is, are we to see it again as Piers Ploughman describes it?

"That Chapter House

Wrought as a great church

Carven and covered

And quentlyche entayled

With scurlich selure

Yseet en lofte

As a Parlement-Hous
Ypeinted aboute."

The Parliament have abandoned it, but they occupied it, it is said, on the condition of maintaining it in repair. The records have been

removed.

To what purpose is it to be converted? It is now like a deserted warehouse, a shame and disgrace to the country. On October 25, 1860, the London and Middlesex Archæological Society visited the building, which, in bitter mockery, was brilliantly lighted up a unanimous resolution was passed to collect money for its restoration. No subscription list, however, has been published as yet. On May 24, 1862, a bright day, when even the full afternoon sun could not relieve the gloom, and two little gaslights indicated the position of the finest mural paintings, a large meeting, convened by the Dean, assembled in it: the Bishops of Oxford and St. David's, Lords Stanhope, Talbot de Malahide, Stratford de Redcliffe, and Ashburton, Mr. Beresford Hope, Mr. Monckton Milnes, Mr. G. Godwin, and Sir William Page Wood were present; there were many excellent speeches made, advocating recourse to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, or to Parliament, or to Government, or to private generosity; a committee was appointed to bring the matter under the notice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer,-and there again the matter ended. On December 2, 1865, the Society of Antiquaries convened an influential meeting, and the result was that the former committee was reinforced with new members, and again requested to communicate with Mr. Gladstone. Is the matter to rest at this point again?

The records are gone to the Rolls Court, but the lumber of empty presses, staircases, and galleries still disfigure the interior. Government no longer requires the building. To what good purpose could it be turned? from what quarter are we to look for funds? what is the amount required? 20,000l., Mr. Scott says, would suffice for its complete restoration less, of course, to place it in that state of tenantable repair to which the Government is morally bound, both as having defaced it completely, and as the representatives of the entire nation, every member of which, from the highest to the lowest, has a direct interest in this greatest of historical monuments. Our capital is not rich in ancient churches and their adjuncts: Westminster Abbey, the choirs of St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield, and St. Mary Overy, and the Temple Church, are all that deserve to be noted. We should like to be able to show foreigners one more memorial of the past, when the Eleanor Cross has been rebuilt, not for utilitarian purposes, but simply from love of architectural beauty, by a railway company. It has been suggested that it would make an excellent show-room for national deeds of

« VorigeDoorgaan »