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When Parliament Went Fresco

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Print showing a chaotic scene with lots of men in the water pulling a boat. One man is standing above them all.
Caesar's First Invasion of Britain, by Edward Armitage, 1843, Parliamentary Archives, PRC/1

Let’s go back to the summer of 1843 when the Palace of Westminster staged a Prize Cartoon Competition. The brainchild of the Fine Arts Commission that everyone was talking about.

Using original prints from our collections Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer shall uncover ten things you probably don’t know about this forgotten event.


The Spark

From the embers of the 1834 fire that destroyed the old Palace of Westminster came a vision for a complete rebuild inspired by the era’s enlightened ethos. Chosen to deliver this dream was the combined creative genius of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin with the Fine Arts Commission on hand to ‘dot the i’s and cross the t’s’ throughout the process.

It was the Commission that initiated the idea that the promotion of fine arts in this country should be aligned with this mammoth reconstruction programme. Noting ‘the erecting of two Houses affords an opportunity ought not to be neglected’.


The Instigators

Sir Robert Peel once again seized the Prime Ministerial reins in a hard-fought 1841 General Election. Briefed on the preliminary recommendations he rubber-stamped the formation of a specialist Royal Commission to oversee interior decisions for this proposed modern legislative assembly. Peel’s appointment of Prince Albert as an honorary chairperson was in stark contrast to recent treatment by the House administration when they rejected granting the Queen’s husband a peerage.

Joining the Prince on the panel included luminaries such as the Marquess of Lansdowne & Viscount Palmerston enjoying a sojourn from discussing contemporary issues to divulge themselves in more esoteric matters.


The Caveat

A strong Germanic influence was prevalent from the outset as Committee Reports were embellished by frequent references to the celebrated Munich school of fresco painting. There was a unanimous agreement across the board that Britain needed to cultivate this style with a brand-new Parliament being the catalyst.

Embracing the endeavouring spirit of the age a formal notice was circulated stating ‘Respecting a Competition in Cartoons’. The caveat was that all entries had to be exclusively fresco drawings based on a subject of British History or the fabled works of Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton.  A deadline was given for May 1843.

Grey scale print
Cardinal Bourchier and the Dowager Queen of Edward IV, by John Z Bell, 1843, Parliamentary Archives, PRC/5

The Victim

Upon reading the Minutes of Evidence, a name appears that has lived on for reasons other than his patronage of the arts. William John Bankes was an extraordinary figure as politician, explorer, and an authority on Egyptology. Naturally his friend Charles Barry sought out Bankes’s expertise to assist on the finer details of the project.

Bankes’s telling contribution was stressing the effect on exposed frescos caused by London’s smog-ridden atmosphere. Unfortunately, an accusation of homosexual activity surfaced leaving Bankes in an extremely perilous position as the supposed charge carried a potential death sentence. He left the country never to return.


The Spoils

To entice the cream of the capital’s talent pool and beyond there had to be an incentive on offer that even exceeded the high-profile setting of where the selected cartoons planned to be exhibited. An artist’s finances tended to fluctuate so when the Commission announced an unprecedented prize-money package prospective entrants started their compositions immediately.

A substantial sum of £2,000 was allocated for the winners. Up for grabs was ten awards avoiding the premise of giving the entire pot to one participant. First class came at a £300 premium, second class at £200 and the remaining five recipients received £100.


The Scene

At the British Museum Reading Room ‘faces’ of the artistic scene took time out researching historic legends like Boadicea and Alfred the Great to help inspire subsequent submissions. The advent of the Parliament competition raised expectations that this could be a precedent for future government arts funding.

The impending showcase was not the only gig in town as from its inception in 1769 the Royal Academy’s seasonal exhibition had established itself as a permanent fixture on the social calendar. Experienced academicians became dual contributors despite the consensus that the compulsory remit was thematically restrictive and unfashionable in the present market.

A women in a forest surrounded by men and fauns
Una Alarmed, by W E Frost, 1843, Parliamentary Archives, PRC/7 

The Victors

After deliberation the judges announced the awards for the Prize Cartoon Competition prior to the exhibition’s grand launch in a surviving part of the medieval palace, Westminster Hall. Edward Armitage had just returned from studying in Paris and his entry Caesar’s First Invasion of Britain was one of the centrepiece £300 top prizes.

John Z Bell, Head of the Manchester School of Design scooped a second-grade award for profiling Cardinal Bourchier, a 15th Century Archbishop of Canterbury and portrait painter William Edward Frost won £100 for Una Alarmed by the Fauns & Satyrs that reimagined Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.


The Public

Though aesthetics seemed the principal concern for many of the Committee members healthy attendance numbers to the exhibition would highlight that the competition had attracted a previously untapped audience. Opening to visitors on Monday 3rd July for the initial fortnight admission was priced at one schilling and afterwards except Saturday was free to all.

Estimates showed that during its two-month residency upwards of 500,000 persons visited the Palace. In centuries past public engagement in Westminster Hall had mainly been confined to State Trials. A final evaluation noted ‘that the first fruits of the Royal Commission surpassed the most sanguine expectations’.


The Backlash

Of course, Punch Magazine couldn’t let this occasion pass without making some form of satirical comment. Cartoonist John Leech’s illustration titled Cartoon Number 1: Substance & Shadow published in July 1843 depicted the metropolitan underclass self-consciously intermingling alongside establishment types surveying the various exhibits. The accompanying text scathingly stated, ‘the poor ask for bread and the philanthropy of the state accords an exhibition’.

Meanwhile in the Lord’s, reformist Lord Henry Brougham was of a similar mind rebuffing the ‘wisdom and generosity of Parliament’. In response the Marquess of Lansdowne tried his best not to flounder on Brougham’s question regarding expenditure.

Read Brougham's question


The Legacy

Later in the decade, the Prize Cartoon competition reappeared with less fanfare and column inches attached. Prince Albert had moved his attentions further afield notably the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Fine Arts Commission concentrated its collaborative efforts in continuing the rebuilding of the new Palace as the gothic splendour of the Committee Rooms followed the Chamber’s reopening.

Charles Barry suggested Westminster Hall as the perfect exhibition space due to the vast quantity of light that it incorporates. Barry’s intuition proved correct as hundreds of publicly accessible events have taken place under its hammer-beamed roof since those storied Victorian glory days.



PRC - 'The Prize Cartoons', 1843, Parliamentary Archives
Reports from the Select Committee on Fine Arts, 1841-1843
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates
1843 The Royal Academy and the Westminster Cartoon Exhibition, Catherine Roach -

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