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Protecting a unique heritage collection

The Palace of Westminster houses a unique collection of over 25,000 works of art, furniture, archive and library collections. The Restoration and Renewal Programme will organise the protection, removal and safe return of these items as well as safeguard those which must remain in the Palace during the building works. There are several distinct collections which will have to be carefully managed: the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection; the Parliamentary Art Collection; the Architectural Fabric Collection and Libraries and Archives.

Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection

The historic collection of 11,000 items of furniture, clocks, ceramics and silver at the Houses of Parliament are of international significance. Nearly two thirds of the collection was created by Augustus Pugin, who designed the original interior of the building. Much of the rest was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott when he was asked to furnish the bombed areas of the House of Commons after the Second World War.

There are many unique objects in the collection such as the Monarch’s Throne in the Lords Chamber, the Peers sideboard and House of Lords Clerk’s Table. A conference table designed by Gilbert Scott for the Prime Minister’s study in 1950 has a ribbon of triangles of 259 different types of wood around its edge, each donated by a member of the Commonwealth at that time. Other items, such as a table in the Speaker’s House, are important because they pre-date the fire of 1834. 

Parliamentary Art Collection 

The Parliamentary Art Collection is the national collection documenting the history, work and people of Parliament and it comprises over 9,000 objects, such as sculpture, wall paintings, oil paintings and works on paper and textiles. Among the most famous pictures are the monumental water-glass paintings by Daniel Maclise in the Royal Gallery commemorating the Battle of Waterloo and the Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. 

As well as curating Victorian works of art, Parliament also commissions contemporary work. Above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall is New Dawn by Mary Branson (2018), a site-specific contemporary glass and light installation, which was the first abstract contemporary artwork to be installed in the historic Palace. New Dawn commemorates the long campaign that led to some women gaining the vote in 1918, and all women in 1928.” 

New Dawn, at the entrance to Stephen’s Hall, is a light sculpture celebrating the campaign for women’s right to vote.

New Dawn, at the entrance to Stephen’s Hall, is a light sculpture celebrating the campaign for women’s right to vote.

New Dawn’s hand blown scrolls reflect the many people who were involved in the campaign for women’s votes.

New Dawn’s hand blown scrolls reflect the many people who were involved in the campaign for women’s votes.

Architectural Fabric Collection 

The collection includes 4,000 items commissioned for the Palace and most date back to the time when the building was originally constructed. These include architectural stone details, metalwork, woodwork, floor-tile design, panelling, fabrics and wallpaper. Other items such as statues and stained glass are likely to remain in-situ for the duration of the work.

When the Palace was built in the mid-1800s, Augustus Pugin was appointed Superintendent of the Works of Wood Carving, responsible for all the designs for wood, stained glass, tiles and metalwork. The richly decorated principal floor rooms best illustrate his enthusiasm for Gothic Revival design. Further decoration was added later by Charles Barry’s son, Edward, after his father’s death. Gilbert Scott continued the Gothic Revival theme in his interiors after the Second World War.

One of the most ubiquitous examples of the architectural fabric are the Pugin-designed encaustic tiles that can be seen throughout the main floor of the Palace. These often incorporate symbols like theTudor Rose, the Fleur de Lis and the Portcullis and were laid throughout the Palace between 1847 and 1852, though many of those damaged and worn have been replaced by 20th century replicas.

Encaustic tiles designed by Augustus Pugin are seen throughout the Palace of Westminster.

Encaustic tiles designed by Augustus Pugin are seen throughout the Palace of Westminster.

Libraries and Archives

The Parliamentary Archives collects, preserves and makes publicly accessible the records of UK Parliament, which are housed in the Victoria Tower. During the restoration, the Archives will be moved to specialist temporary accommodation. The parliamentary authorities are leading this project and it is estimated that the cataloguing and packing of the four million records, which has already started, will take three years to complete. Moving them will take another year.  

A House move like no other 

The Restoration and Renewal Programme, working collaboratively with the collection custodians in the two Houses of Parliament, will plan the removal of all these cultural treasures and ensure they are kept safe during the work on the Palace. A full assessment of the historic furniture and works of art across the Parliamentary Estate has already started. Meanwhile, the Archives Relocation Programme is planning for the removal of the archives from Victoria Tower and the House of Lords Library is planning for the removal of its collections. Not all the heritage items will be moved. There are over 50 wall paintings and numerous marble and bronze statues which cannot be removed and will need to be protected in situ. Many of the heritage items in the Palace are displayed in working areas or remain in everyday use and so the Programme provides a unique opportunity for Parliament to undertake specialist conservation and cleaning.