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William Kent (c.1685-1748): Westminster, London: designs for a new Parliament House, 1733-c.1748 (37)

The catalogue of William Kent's designs for a new Parliament House is based on Dr Frank Salmon's chapter in Susan Weber (ed.), William Kent. Designing Georgian Britain, 2013, pp. 315-63. Salmon's article is the most recent and comprehensive study of Kent's Parliament House designs and corrects and expands upon two other significant essays by Fiske Kimball ('William Kent's designs for the Houses of Parliament, 1730-40', Journal of the RIBA, 6 August 1932, pp. 733-55 and 10 September 1932, pp. 800-7) and Howard Colvin ('Projects for a Parliament House', in Colvin (ed.), The History of the King's Works, V, 1976, pp. 416-25). The overall structure of the catalogue, which is divided into six sub-schemes, follows Salmon's analysis of the drawings. The relevant dates, attributions and most of the individual drawing notes are also based on Salmon’s work, which is cited throughout the catalogue with page numbers given. To Salmon’s analysis, this catalogue adds information on bar scales, inscriptions, media, dimensions and watermarks, and high-resolution images (where available).

The idea of building a new Parliament House had been in the air since at least the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The existing structure was seen as unsatisfactory in terms of both practicality and grandeur. Colvin records that it was the need to re-house the Cottonian Library that initiated the movement for a new Parliament House in 1732 (King's Works, V, p. 418). The following year it was reported that Lord Burlington had devised a plan for the new development, together with an estimate of £30,000. Burlington’s design no doubt influenced Kent’s initial designs, which can be dated to 1733 and are grouped together as the 'Pantheon' Scheme (drawings 1-9). For unknown reasons this first scheme, so called after its Pantheon-style dome, failed to progress, and the next drawings – for the interior of the House of Lords – are dateable to January 1736 (new style) (drawing 10). The minutes of the Board of Works record no new developments until August 1739, but Salmon proves that the next surviving set of designs must have been made before then (Salmon, pp. 339-41). Named after the Chiswick-style octagonal-based dome at its centre, the Intermediate 'Chiswick' Scheme (drawings 11-17) was then followed by the First 'Belvedere' Scheme (drawings 18-26), in which a huge look-out tower formed the centrepiece. This last, it seems, was submitted to the Treasury on 20 August 1739 and subsequently offered to the Speaker, revised and re-submitted on 11 December 1739 (constituting the Second 'Belvedere' Scheme, drawings 27-31). The Parliament House project was stymied by the hostilities between Britain and Spain that commenced in August 1739 and Britain’s entry into the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740. A final proposal by Kent, dateable only to after 1740, was put forward and included a new building to the west of Westminster Hall that provided the basis for the New Stone Building erected between 1755 and 1770 to the designs of John Vardy (q.v. John Vardy: Westminster, London: designs for the New Stone Building, c. 1751).

Kent’s designs evolved over the course of the period but several general observations can be made. The new Parliament House was to be a Palladian building with a central feature – either a dome or a tower – and corner pavilions. The principal elevation was to face Old Palace Yard while the east side of the building was to have a river entrance. In most of the surviving elevation drawings the building has three storeys including a ground-level ‘basement’ and a piano nobile. The façades reveal a mixture of pedimented and Serlian windows. The first set of designs includes a new Cottonian Library, but this is not present in the 'Chiswick' Scheme. A new Court of Requests is sometimes included and sometimes absent. The two Parliamentary chambers occupy opposite ends of the building, invariably with the Commons to the north and the Lords to the south. In plan, the Lords is always shown as rectangular whereas the shape of the House of Commons varies. Finally the site and size of the new building are inconstant, sometimes encroaching into the River Thames and sometimes not, and ranging from 280 to 444 feet in width (north to south).

William Kent’s designs for a Parliament House are important evidence for Kent as a public architect – his only other major public projects being the Treasury building (1733-37) and the Horse Guards (1750-59), both in Whitehall – and for Palladian architecture in general. The surviving drawings are held by four separate institutions: the Victoria and Albert Museum; the National Archives; the British Architectural Library at the RIBA; and Sir John Soane’s Museum. The provenance of the Soane Museum’s drawings is unclear, although it is likely that they came into Soane’s possession during the 1820s when he himself was involved with work at the Palace of Westminster. Five drawings, including two for the interior of the Cottonian Library (SM 37/4/1-5), were purchased by the Curator, Arthur Bolton, from a member of the Society of Antiquaries on 17 October 1930 for the sum of £1.0.0. In addition to the original drawings in the hands of William Kent, his assistant, Stephen Wright, and John Vardy, the collection also contains copies and tracings of the originals made by pupils in the Soane Office.

Abbreviations:
BAL - RIBA, British Architectural Library
SM - Sir John Soane's Museum
TNA - The National Archives
V&A - Victoria and Albert Museum

Literature:
F. Kimball, 'William Kent's designs for the Houses of Parliament, 1730-40', Journal of the RIBA, 6 August 1932, pp. 733-55; F. Kimball, 'William Kent's designs for the Houses of Parliament, 1730-40. Second Instalment', Journal of the RIBA, 10 September 1932, pp. 800-7; Anonymous, 'Drawings by William Kent for the Houses of Parliament, 1739', Journal of the RIBA, 9 January 1939, pp. 228-31; H. Colvin, 'Projects for a Parliament House', in H. Colvin (ed.), The History of the King's Works, V, 1976, pp. 416-25; M. I. Wilson, William Kent: Architect, Designer, Painter, Gardener, 1685-1748, 1984; J. Harris, William Kent, 1685-1748: A Poet on Paper, 1998; F. Salmon, 'Public Commissions', in S. Weber (ed.), William Kent. Designing Georgian Britain, 2013, pp. 315-63.

Tom Drysdale, January 2015
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