At our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, James Ford (University of Nottingham) spoke on ‘‘United under one roof, though separated by different arches and mouldings’: representing the Union in the Central Lobby mosaics, 1847-1924.’ Here he discusses his paper…
In Michael Cokerell’s 2015 documentary Inside the Commons the late Charles Kennedy MP repeated an anecdote that explains the placement of mosaics of saints George, Andrew, Patrick and David in Central Lobby using national stereotypes relating to England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. According to this popular explanation, which also appeared in a handbook for parliamentary researchers published last year, St George is placed over the entrance to the House of Lords because the English like to lord it over the other nations. St David stands above the Commons’ entrance because the Welsh like the sound of their own voice. St Andrew is above the corridor that leads to the bars, reflecting Scots’ love of a drink. Finally, St Patrick appears above the exit as a result of Ireland wanting to leave the Union.
It will hopefully come as no surprise that there is no truth in this as an explanation of the mosaics’ arrangement. Nevertheless, it indicates the way that this scheme has been interpreted at a popular level, and how issues of national identity and the politics of the Union are seen to be inherent within it. It is surprising, then, that the few existing accounts of the mosaics pay little or no attention to issues relating to the Union. By contrast, my paper aimed to show how such issues played a central role in the scheme’s development and reception.
The Central Lobby mosaics were originally planned in 1847 by the Prince Albert-led Fine Arts Commission. However, it was only in the late 1860s that work on the programme began and it would be almost six decades before it was completed. St George and St David were installed in 1870 and 1899 respectively, based on designs by Sir Edward Poynter. St Andrew and St Patrick were designed by Robert Anning Bell and unveiled in 1923 and 1924. By taking each mosaic in turn, I sought to show why the scheme was completed in such a fragmented way, and how each mosaic related to contemporary events within the Union and associated developments of UK national identities.
My paper started by looking at the attempt to complete all four mosaics that began in 1868, charting how a number of artistic and financial pressures led to St George, as England’s patron saint, being prioritised over the others. These were then axed under the economising of Acton Smee Ayrton, the First Commissioner of Works, leaving St George to stand alone for nearly thirty years. I then looked at the important role that images of the St David mosaic played in the Welsh national revival during the second decade of the twentieth century. Spearheaded by the first Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Department of the Board of Education, Alfred Thomas Davies, reproductions of the mosaic became an important tool in the promotion of a greater sense of Welsh national identity.
The completion of the St Andrew and St Patrick mosaics in the 1920s was more closely related to political developments within the Union than those of St George and St David. I argued that coming shortly after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, and amid growing calls for Scottish Home Rule, they were used by Scottish Unionists, who paid for and organised the mosaics, as a way of negotiating the new status quo of the Union. In the case of the St Andrew mosaic this meant reaffirming Scotland’s place at the centre of the Union. Meanwhile the design of the St Patrick panel became a means to give Ulster Unionists visual representation in Parliament and cement the existence of Northern Ireland in glass and mortar.
Join us tonight for our next ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Brid McGrath (Trinity College, Dublin) will speak on ‘Sex, lies and rigged returns: the Kerry election of 1634 and its consequences.’ Full details available here.