The Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament
The present Houses of Parliament in London, so famous for their pinnacled roof and adjacent Big Ben, are less than 200 years old. A popular motif for painters from overseas, it is well situated on the ‘north’ bank (here, actually the west bank) of the River Thames, upstream from the City itself.
The original Palace of Westminster was a royal palace for Edward the Confessor, just before the Norman Conquest. He also built the adjacent Westminster Abbey (the ‘West Minster’, giving the name), which until the new Palace was built in the middle of the nineteenth century was the higher and dominant building.
This early royal palace was destroyed by fire in 1512, and soon became the home of the two Houses of Parliament, but was inadequate for that purpose, lacking proper chambers for the houses. The site gradually expanded, but there was no clear planning to provide suitable accommodation. It was extensively remodelled between 1824-7. An overheated stove which was being used to burn the Exchequer’s store of wooden tally sticks set the buildings alight on 16 October 1834, and they quickly burnt to the ground.
While the Houses of Commons and Lords met in temporary accommodation, the current buildings were constructed to the designs of Charles Barry, in Perpendicular Gothic style. Most of the building work was completed by 1860. Although the site suffered bomb damage during the Second World War, the main buildings remain much as originally constructed. Unfortunately they are now in dire need of extensive repair, and Parliament is once again debating its options.
The most famous views of the current Palace of Westminster are of course from the river, with the distinctive Elizabeth Tower, housing Big Ben, at the right. At the opposite end, to the south-west of the site, is the larger and higher Victoria Tower, and the middle of the waterfront has the smallest spire-like Central Tower.
The River Thames is an invaluable compositional aid when painting the Palace, but being quite broad at this point puts considerable distance between the painter and the buildings. This is exaggerated when the view is made over a diagonal across the river, such as from Lambeth Palace.
The river also brings its own lighting effects, particularly fog. Until the use of coal fires died out in London during the 1950s and 1960s, smoke and fog often combined to produce smogs; when these were thin their colours could enhance views, although they were responsible for much disease and many deaths.
Today this section of the River Thames has very little goods traffic, London’s upper docks having closed between 1960-90. The nineteenth century was a period of particularly heavy trade, though. The major enclosed basins were all situated downstream of Waterloo Bridge, and well away from Westminster, with smaller vessels plying their trade along the section in front of the Palace. Now most of the vessels are carrying passengers, either using the river as a rapid means of crossing the city, or as tourists.
Samuel Scott (1702–1772) was born in London, and worked there for much of his career. He specialised in maritime paintings, and was a pioneer in watercolour techniques, although many of his surviving works are in oils. He had already been painting London scenes, including the new Westminster Bridge, when Canaletto arrived in London in 1746, and views of London became popular. He then augmented his reputation by painting several series centred on the Thames and its bridges.
Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers’ Company (c 1745) shows this section of the River Thames on a windy day, with showers not far away. Teams of rowers pull their boats out to attend to the ceremonial barges in the foreground, suggestive of Venetian boat ceremonies. The opposite bank shows, from the left, the imposing twin towers of Westminster Abbey, the old Palace almost hidden behind trees, and Westminster Bridge.
This was painted from Lambeth Palace (marked ① on the map). At this time, this stretch of the Thames was shown in many topographical views, many of which were then engraved and printed. Scott’s view has more to it than those, with the action on the river, and its wonderful sky.
Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) (1697–1768) was born in Venice, where he established himself as the most popular painter of views of the city and its events. His paintings sold particularly well to British visitors undertaking their Grand Tour; when business suffered as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession, in 1746, he moved to London, where he painted until returning to Venice in 1755.
Taken from a similar location on the ‘south’ bank of the river as Scott’s painting, The River Thames looking towards Westminster from Lambeth (1747) had the benefit of height, probably being painted from one of the towers of Lambeth Palace (① on the map), seen in the right foreground.
Although Canaletto, probably as a reflection of his Venetian works, captures the bustle of the multitude of vessels on the river, even the massive form of Westminster Abbey appears so far distant that it loses grandeur. The tiny old Palace to the right of it, although close to the centre of the painting, all but disappears. Westminster Bridge is brilliant white in the sunlight, and steals the centre of attention. Standing proud of the skyline at the far right is the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
I find this a strange composition, in which Canaletto seems not to want to show Westminster (Abbey or Palace), but felt compelled to include them. His other views of London are generally less distant, and some quite intimate, and this was quite out of character of his fine views of Venice. Critics consider that his work lost fluidity, became repetitive, and too mechanical; however this painting was made soon after his arrival in London, rather than later in his stay.
Paul Sandby (1730/1-1809) started his career as a military map-maker, painting watercolour sketches of Scotland as a hobby. He soon made his living from topographic painting, and etching printing plates after his own drawings. Based in London, he travelled extensively through the British Isles to complete some of the earliest extensive topographic collections covering the country. He is recognised as being a pioneer in watercolour.
View of the south end of the old House of Commons (1794) presents another solution to the relative insignificance of the Houses of Parliament: to ignore the river and paint up close against the building. This rapidly-executed watercolour sketch of the old Palace gives a clear impression of the building long since lost to fire. It was painted from what is now the northern end of the Victoria Tower Gardens, a public park (②).
John Constable (1776-1837) was brought up in the Suffolk countryside, which he painted extensively in monumental works such as The Hay Wain (1821). A prolific sketcher in oils and watercolour, his paintings proved popular in France and were an influence over the Barbizon School, and later the Impressionists.
When the old Palace caught fire in 1834, most of London turned out to watch the flames. John Constable was in a cab, stuck in the jam on Westminster Bridge (③), where he painted this Fire Sketch (1834), showing the north end of the building ablaze. He did not, apparently, try to develop it into anything more substantial.
JMW Turner (1775–1851) was born and worked in London throughout his career, although he travelled widely through Europe. His genius quickly became apparent, and much of his early career was devoted to assembling collections of topographic paintings of the British Isles, for engraving and printing. He was a master of both oil and watercolour media, experimenting extensively with both; unfortunately this has compromised the survival of many of his paintings. His style became notoriously loose later in his career, and several of his paintings were precursors of Impressionism.
With Constable, his arch-rival, stuck in a cab on Westminster Bridge, Turner was still on the ‘south’ bank, at the far end of the bridge (④). From there, or rather later, he painted one version of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1834-5) in oils, which is now in Philadelphia. The two prominent towers behind the fire are those of Westminster Abbey.
The other canvas shows a view from near what is now Hungerford Bridge, on the ‘south’ bank still (⑤). At that time there was no Hungerford Bridge: the first bridge built at that point was a suspension footbridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 1845, and was replaced with a more massive structure to carry trains to Charing Cross Station, in 1864.
In this view, Westminster Bridge is silhouetted against the flames, instead of being lit by them, and the massive towers of Westminster Abbey appear ghostly in the distance. This version is also in the USA, in Cleveland.
Turner capitalised successfully on this spectacle, although these paintings were not the atmospheric sketches that they might appear. A lot of the oil paint has been applied wet on dry, showing that Turner must have worked on each for several weeks, at least, in the studio.
David Roberts (1796-1864) was born near Edinburgh, Scotland, where he first worked as a decorator and scenery painter. He was encouraged to develop his fine art painting by William Clarkson Stanfield, and moved to London in 1822. His landscape paintings became more popular, and with JMW Turner’s encouragement he travelled to Spain, the Middle East and Italy. During the final years of his life he was producing a series of views of London, which included one of the new Palace of Westminster.
The Houses of Parliament from Millbank (1861) shows the new Palace of Westminster during final completion work. In order to show the new buildings to best effect, Roberts positioned himself to the south, probably at the west end of Lambeth Bridge at Millbank (⑥). In doing so he lost the symmetry and regular structure of the building, its towers here looking almost haphazard. From the left and front they are the Victoria, Central, and Elizabeth, the latter just showing the southern clock face.
The vessels shown are typical of the type known as Thames Barges, and were probably engaged in bringing materials to the site during construction.
Claude Monet (1840–1926) was born in Paris, but moved to Le Havre, where he first displayed talent as a caricaturist. In the mid 1850s he learned to paint plein air thanks to his mentorship by Eugène Boudin. He returned to Paris, where he became a student of Charles Gleyre. He befriended Renoir, Bazille and Sisley at Gleyre’s academy, and together they developed the Impressionist movement.
When the Franco-Prussian War started in 1870, Monet, his family, and Pissarro fled to London, where they saw the works of Constable and Turner. Pissarro lived in, and painted, the leafy suburbs of London such as Norwood, Monet worked more in central London. He submitted paintings for the Royal Academy exhibition in early 1871, but they were refused. He left London for Zaandam in the Netherlands, returning to France later that year.
Just a decade after Roberts’ very conventional treatment of the motif, Monet’s The Thames below Westminster (1871) is a radical departure. Painted from the Embankment to the north of Westminster Bridge, near what is now Whitehall (⑦), the three towers to the south are almost superimposed, and show exaggerated aerial perspective with the mist. The river is now bustling with small paddleboat steamers. In the foreground a pier under construction is shown almost in silhouette. The small waves and reflections on the river are indicated with coarse brushstrokes, adding to the impression that this is a rapid and spontaneous work.
Monet started painting formal series during the 1880s, when he was enjoying commercial success at last. From about 1896, almost all his works were part of a series. He started to travel through Europe in search of suitable motifs for these series, visiting Norway in 1895, and later Venice.
When he returned to London in 1899, and in the following two years, Monet chose a very different view of the Palace, from a location at the opposite end of Westminster Bridge, for his series of 19 paintings. These were all started from the second floor of the Administrative Block at the northern end of the old Saint Thomas’s Hospital on the ‘south’ bank (Khan, 2011) (④), and completed over the following three or four years.
His The Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect (1903) is even more radical than the painting of thirty years before, showing little more than the Palace in silhouette, the sun low in the sky, and its broken reflections in the water.
The Houses of Parliament, Sunset (1903) shows the same view in better visibility, but with the sun setting and a small boat on the move in front of the Palace.
In The Houses of Parliament, Stormy Sky (1904) the sun is higher and further to the south, allowing Monet to balance the silhouette of the Palace with its shadow cast on the water, and the brightness in the sky with its fragmented reflections.
Wikipedia on Monet’s Parliament series
This blog article on Monet’s series paintings
Baker J and Thornes JE (2006) Solar position within Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Proc Roy Soc A 462:3775-3788. doi:10.1098/rspa.2006.1754
Khan SF (2011) Monet at the Savoy Hotel and the London Fogs 1899-1901, PhD thesis, University of Birmingham. Available here.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and initially worked as an illustrator. After training in New York, his oil paintings became popular and well-received by critics, and he was able to study in Paris for a year from 1867. He did not take watercolours seriously until 1873, but in his later career became one of America’s most innovative and expressive painters in that medium.
He became more reclusive during the 1870s, and travelled to the UK to spend 1881-2 in the coastal village of Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear, in the north-east of England. There his subjects were the people in the local community and their lives in relationship with the sea, including the local fishing industry.
The Houses of Parliament (1881) is Homer’s faithful representation of the Palace when viewed from the opposite bank of the Thames, to the north (downstream) of the end of Westminster Bridge (⑧). The tide is high under the arches of Westminster Bridge, and small boats are on the river.
This classic watercolour makes an interesting contrast with Monet’s later oil paintings: Homer provides little more detail, the Palace being shown largely in silhouette, but works with the texture of the paper and careful choice of pigment to give granularity. He provides just sufficient visual cues to fine detail, in the lamps and people on Westminster Bridge, and in the boats, to make this a fine example of masterful watercolour.
National Gallery of Art virtual exhibition from 2005.
This blog article on Winslow Homer
Tedeschi M and others (2008) Watercolors by Winslow Homer. The Color of Light, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 11945 9.
Tom (Thomas William) Roberts (1856-1931) emigrated as a child from England to Australia, where he was a photographer’s assistant while training as a painter. A realist at first, he became one of the Australian Impressionists, exhibiting in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889. Between 1881-5 he studied in Europe, mainly in the Royal Academy Schools in London.
Fog, Thames Embankment (1884) is painted from a similar location to Monet’s early The Thames below Westminster (1871), on the Embankment to the north of Westminster Bridge (⑦), but is cropped much more tightly, cutting off the tops of the Victoria and Elizabeth Towers. The Palace and first couple of arches of Westminster Bridge appear in misty silhouette, with moored barges and buildings on a pier shown closer and crisper. He renders the ruffled surface of the river with coarse brushstrokes, but quite differently from those of Monet.
Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was a Bostonian who also started his artistic career in illustration, then trained as a painter in the USA, and later in Europe. Having achieved reasonable success in oils and watercolours in Boston, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris between 1886-9, where he developed a strongly Impressionist style. He returned to Europe several times later, painting in Italy (including Venice), Paris, and England.
In Houses of Parliament, Early Evening (1898), the sun has already set, and he is viewing the Palace in the gathering dusk from a point on the opposite (‘south’) bank, perhaps not as far south as Lambeth Palace (⑨). The Victoria Tower is prominent in the left of the painting, the Central Tower is in the centre, and the most distant Elizabeth Tower is distinctive with its illuminated clock face. Moored boats in the foreground provide the only other detail. His rough facture gives a textured surface to the water.
Émile Claus (1849-1924) was born and brought up in a village in West Flanders, Belgium, and trained at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, developing a gently realist-Impressionist style sometimes termed Luminism. He became internationally successful, and travelled widely. The First World War changed that, and he fled to London, where he painted until returning to Belgium in 1918.
Sunset over Waterloo Bridge (1916) probably does not quite include the Palace, because of its northerly viewpoint; it was painted from a location on the north bank of the Thames slightly to the east of Waterloo Bridge (⑩), the north end of which is prominent, and looks south-west into the setting sun, up river. Claus painted several views of Waterloo Bridge whilst he was in London, but does not appear to have attempted any formal series, such as Monet’s, which also included a series of Waterloo Bridge.
Claus is not formulaic in his treatment. He uses billowing clouds of steam and smoke to great effect, and his inclusion of the road, trees and terraces in the foreground, on the Embankment, provides useful contrast with the crisp arches of the bridge, and the vaguer silhouettes in the distance. Like Monet’s series, this is likely to have been painted from a temporary studio inside a building.
Bernard Ronfaut (1933-) was born in Paris and, after first training in jewellery, he studied at the Central School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has lived and worked in Auvergne since 1967, and exhibits internationally. He describes his style as playing with light and pure colour, influenced by Expressionism and his early work with jewellery.
Although not a strictly representative painting, his London (2009) includes towers which appear to be those of the Palace, and some of its waterfront. As the towers are shown in silhouette, it is difficult to be sure which is which, but the largest resembles the Victoria Tower. This painting also has a distinctly Cubist feel in its appearance and its decomposition of reality.
Simon Kozhin (1979-) was born in Moscow and trained at the Moscow Academic Art Lyceum, attached to the Russian Academy of Arts, and the Ilya Glazunov Academy in Moscow. He first visited the UK in 2001, and has since painted and exhibited extensively throughout Europe. During one visit in 2006 he painted several views of London. A Realist who specialises in working plein air, his paintings are in many public gallery, corporate, and private collections.
Rain (2006) is one of two views of the Palace which Kozhin painted plein air that year; the other shows Elizabeth Tower and the Palace from the north, the viewpoint being on the Embankment just to the north of the end of Westminster Bridge.
This view is less conventional, though, in showing the north end of the Palace on a very dull, wet day, a tourist kiosk in the centre foreground, and the contorted branches of leafless trees beside it. The two prominent towers shown are the Central (mid left) and Victoria (centre) Towers, with their decoration delicately hinted in colour. Although quite detailed and thoroughly realist, reflections of the kiosk lighting on the wet road surface are painterly. This was painted from the pavement outside Portcullis House, close to the entrance to Westminster Underground Station (⑪).
Personal website (in English and Russian)
The Palace of Westminster has not been an easy subject to paint, but has been popular, and the subject of many excellent paintings. The Old Palace was not prominent enough to make much visual impact against the dominance of Westminster Abbey. However from its burning in 1834 and replacement, it has enjoyed considerable attention.
This brief survey has covered 261 years, 13 different artists, and their 17 paintings from 11 different viewpoints. Styles started in faithful if not meticulous realism, loosened with the flowering of Impressionism, and more recently have been modernist or returned to realism tempered with a painterly approach. Individual artists have found different viewpoints to develop different views, and each has expressed their own vision.