The Artwork

The construction of Victoria's Garden Pavilion was already planned before Prince Albert and his Royal Commission devised a competition to determine who would paint historical frescoes on the walls of the House of Lords in the new Palace of Westminster. But the Pavilion's interior decorations would significantly take shape within that context. Albert saw the building as an ideal opportunity to undertake the first ever systematic British experiment in fresco painting. Inspired by its recent revival in Germany, Albert consulted with numerous advisers to assess the feasibility of fresco in the British climate, its stylistic suitedness for the project, and the capacity of British artists to work in such high style.


A Fine Arts Commission was established in 1841 with Albert as president and Charles Eastlake as secretary. Among others, the committee consulted with Europe's premier expert on fresco painting, Peter von Cornelius, who doubted that English artists had the talents for grand historical composition. But Albert strongly disagreed, wanting to give British artists an opportunity to flourish in a new way. Like the committee, Albert also had political motivations. Fresco had been successfully revived in Germany, most notably by a group of painters called the "Nazarenes." Albert, Eastlake, and the Fine Arts Commission admired the "national ardour" of these German artists and "its consequent effects in elevating morality and improving standards of design in the nation" (Willsdon 46). Albert's art advisor on the pavilion, Ludwig Gruner, would share these political aspirations for fresco and its impact on British art and public taste.


Not everyone agreed that fresco was a good idea. The painter William Dyce, for instance, was pessimistic that fresco would survive the damp English climate. John Ruskin was skeptical that English painters had the spiritual fervor to execute such paintings, especially compared with fresco's storied history in Italy. Nonetheless, the Fine Arts Commission decided to hold a series of competitions for artists who submitted "cartoons," or studies for larger frescoes, to be considered in the Houses of Parliament. In keeping with its nationalistic goals, the Commission encouraged artists to use British history and literature and subjects.


The Garden Pavilion became the private offshoot for these trials, intended to test the medium and fitness of selected artists. Eight prominent artists were selected to paint frescoed lunettes in the central Octagon room based on scenes from Milton's Comus. Others were commissioned to produce and apply frescoed designs based on the works of Sir Walter Scott in one adjoining chamber and, in the other, frescoes based on the paintings, artifacts, and ornaments of the Macellum (Market Place) unearthed in Pompeii earlier in the century. These had been reproduced in the colored lithographs of the multi-volume Les ruines de Pompéi edited by François Mazois (1824-1838). Anna Jameson explains that the designs in the three rooms were conceived to represent "three different styles of decoration, the Cinque-cento, the Antique, and the Romantic." The themes of the artwork can support the nationalism of the Commission's project with the House of Lords. At the same time, their differences also resist that single interpretation.


The interior of the pavilion is saturated with decorations. The Octagon room is densely covered with elaborate, colored designs and friezes featuring human forms, with no wall or ceiling surface left unpainted. Only the top of the walls and ceiling of the Scott room are painted, but are equally dense with 24 designs based upon Sir Walter Scott's novels and poems. By comparison, the Pompeii room appears austere, with walls colored but featuring only a single figure as the central design. The base of the walls pictures artifacts recovered from Pompeii.


Special items of furniture were also commissioned for each of the three rooms. Like the art work in the Octagon Room, the furniture throughout, including the upholstery (some of which is intricately tasseled and fringed), is elaborately detailed, designed with images and patterns that echo each other, the legs and arms of chairs laboriously turned, and structural components decorated with scroll work. The upholstery of the Scott and Octagon rooms appears to boast proto-Morissean floral and leafy contours, while the cushion on the chair of the Pompeii room presents a linear design that is a stark contrast to the rounded and undulating or scrolling designs on its frame and legs. The base of the chess table from the Scott room has similarly convoluted (baroque, labyrinthine) organic motifs.


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