SPEAKERS HOUSE – THEN AND NOW

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For reasons that are beyond the scope of this entry, I was invited to a reception this week in the State Rooms at Speakers House. This is a residence for the Speaker within the Palace of Westminster and the State Rooms now make up the part of the House reserved for official business and functions.

The Rooms were designed by Augustus Pugin and he did a thorough job, designing the wood carving and panelling (of which there’s an abundance), the fabrics, the curtains, the wallpaper, the metalwork, the tiles… You get the idea. The designs date from the early 1850s, although the work was carried out later.

There were two things that struck me in particular.

First, there’s a large painting of Speaker William Lenthall and his family on the right-hand side of the staircase as you approach the State Rooms. He was Speaker of the House of Commons from 1640 to 1660. Recent Speakers might think they lived in turbulent times, but at least they didn’t have to contend with a civil war, trial and execution of a monarch and restoration of the monarchy. William Lenthall, as Speaker, managed to survive all of those and die a natural death. I don’t know if the painting is intended to inspire, reassure or warn Speakers who pass it now.

The second thing that struck me was that State Rooms on this scale and of this grandeur wouldn’t be built now. I doubt they’d even be called “State” rooms and anyone designing on this scale would be laughed out of court. I’m not referring here to the style of the design, which is bound to move on. I’m referring to the opulence of the panelling, the fabrics, the tiles and the like – that they would be bespoke, rather than off-the-peg and that every detail is deliberate and designed. These are all features that are no longer necessary and my perception is that they’re no longer valued. Instead of there being emphasis on creating something that could last for 150 years and more, the emphasis is on cost-benefit analysis. Instead of striving for the very best and what might be perceived as exclusivity, the objective is to be inclusive, either by providing physical access to as many as can be accommodated or showing that the rooms are like those anyone else would use (and we’re back to the concept of everyone – see the blog entry of 26 October).

I don’t know that I’d support spending on official rooms for the Speaker when there seem to be so many more deserving causes, but I do know that I came away from Westminster, this week, thankful that such splendid rooms had been designed and built, that they’d survived for so long and that they show every sign of surviving for many years to come. And then I started to ponder cost-benefit analyses all over again.