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https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2021/08/17/changing-faces-conserving-the-great-clock-past-and-present/

CHANGING FACES: CONSERVING THE GREAT CLOCK PAST AND PRESENT

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Over the past year of Elizabeth Tower blog posts from the Parliamentary Archives, we’ve taken a deeper look at the Ayrton Light, Big Ben and the quarter bells and the decorative shields which adorn the Tower’s façade. As restoration of the four clock faces edges nearer completion, let us look at their design, cleaning and restoration over the years.

This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee). 

Photograph of a person suspended in front of a clock face of the Elizabeth Tower.
Cleaning of the dials of the Great Clock, 1992-2009, HC/OCE/1/61, Parliamentary Archives

CHARLES BARRY AND AUGUSTUS PUGIN

The clock tower, now known as the Elizabeth Tower, was completed in 1859 and designed by the architect Charles Barry. Barry was the architect of the Gothic Revival Palace of Westminster, after winning a competition out of 97 entries. Barry teamed up with Augustus Welby Pugin for this huge project, who was only 23.

Barry designed the intricate ironwork details for the dials on the clock faces of the Elizabeth Tower. There are many examples in the Parliamentary Archives of other clocks, designed down to the finest details. An example is a pencil design for clock hands in the House of Lords, by Pugin, which you can view here: Drawing of a design for clock hands for the House of Lords (parliament.uk)

The hour figures on the Elizabeth Tower are 60cm long, and the dials 7m across, with the hour hands made of gun metal. The minute hands are made of copper sheet, 4.2m long, weigh 100 kilograms and travel the equivalent of 190 kilometres a year!

Black and white photo showing the clock tower.
Big Ben, c 1905, FAR/7/18, Parliamentary Archives,

As well as designing the ironwork details of the dials, Barry chose the original colours which have since been covered in layers of paint. The aim of the Elizabeth Tower project team is to bring the Tower back to the original design and vision by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. One of the ways the team have done this is through restoring original paint colours.

THE ‘NEW’ OLD COLOUR SCHEME

The Architecture and Heritage team in Parliament worked with a team of paint experts at Lincoln University to analyse over 160 years of paint applied to the clock tower. Looking at each layer of paint, the team identified six different colour schemes used over the years. These were compared with the original drawings for the building which are held in the Parliamentary Archives.

For years the clock dials and the stonework surrounding them were painted in many layers of black paint that most of us associate with Big Ben. It is believed this colour scheme was chosen in the 1930s to mask the effects of pollution. You can see this black paint and the ‘new’ old colour scheme below.

 

Image of the corner of the clock tower. Most of the tower is covered in scaffolding apart from 2 clock faces.
Close up image of East (left) and North (right) dials ©UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

The dials and clock hands are Prussian blue and gold. The black paint on the stonework around the clock dials has been removed and certain features have been gilded again. New white opalescent glass has been installed after the metalwork was cleaned and repainted. Other key details have also returned to Barry’s original design, such as the row of six shields above each dial that displays St George’s red cross on a white background.

You can learn more about the paint changes and restoration to the tower here: Houses of Parliament: Redecoration of Clock Tower

 

 PAST CONSERVATION AND CLEANING

The current restoration of the Elizabeth Tower is the most ambitious to date. In the 1950s, the tower was repaired following the Second World War where it was bombed. These repairs were limited due to austerity after the war and could not fix all the issues. Further repairs were carried out between 1983 and 1985 to fix many issues, and cleaning and maintenance has continued without tackling the many serious problems with the clock tower. Completed in 1859, the crumbling stones, rusty ironwork, leaking roofs and an aging clock are symptomatic of a building this age.

close up image of a person suspended in front of the clock face.
Cleaning of the dials of the Great Clock, 1992-2009, HC/OCE/1/61, Parliamentary Archives

Following restoration off-site by skilled experts, the original clock hands have been painted to match the original Prussian Blue colour scheme on the clock dials, first revealed in 2019. As the clock dials are nearing completion, Parliament’s teams are ready to reattach the original hands to the dials of the Tower – including replacing the temporary hands that have been displayed on the North Dial for over two years.

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