John Rogers Herbert (1810-90) and the New Palace of Westminster

Article excerpt

In 1845, John Rogers Herbert, RA (1810-90), was among several artists commissioned to do-fresco painting in the New Palace of Westminster. He already had a reputation of being one of the up and coming British School, and now he was one of the few chosen to contribute his talent to the nation, helping shape the new Houses of Parliament into a Victorian vision of national pride and identity. Comparatively little has been written since the 19th century on the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, and the few things that have been published nearly ignore Herbert's work completely; though he was one of the main artists employed in the decoration of the palace, along with Daniel Madise, Charles West Cope and Edward Matthew Ward. TSR Boase's 1954 article mentions Herbert's contribution, but calls his work 'uninspired' and compares him unfavourably with Maclise. (1) In German Romanticism and English Art (1979) William Vaughan wrote about the interest taken by British artists of this time in German frescoes, but did not mention Herbert's contribution to the Palace of Westminster. More recently, in 1995, Clare Willsdon devoted a chapter of her book, Mural Painting in Britain to the decoration of the New Palace, but strangely only mentions Herbert in passing, and wrongly asserts that both his works for the Peers' Robing Room were executed in 1880. (2) Yet more recently, Riding's comprehensive The Houses of Parliament: History, Art and Architecture devotes even less space to Herbert, (3) illustrating two of his paintings with no other comment on the artist or the restoration carried out on his work in the 1980s. (4) Now, however, there seems to be increasing interest in the attempts to decorate the Palace of Westminster, including a recent submission in this journal on the mosaics by Robert Arming Bell in the 1920s. (5) This article attempts to bring Herbert's work to light, giving it the prominence it deserves and correcting misconceptions about the artist and the history of the commissions. It will also explore Herbert's first and most successful commission for the New Palace, Lear Disinheriting Cordelia, which secured his fame with the Victorian press and public alike.

The Commissioners on the Fine Arts

In 1841, a select committee was appointed to '... take into consideration the Promotion of the FINE ARTS of this Country, in connection with the Rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament'. (6) It was chaired by Prince Albert, whose taste and ideas were very present in the choice of subjects, artists and medium chosen by the Commissioners. After consultation and interview, the Commissioners decided that the medium for the decoration of the New Palace would be fresco. In many ways, fresco was an odd choice, almost no one in England had any experience of the technique, and being a 'classical' style, it wasn't a natural companion to Barry's gothic building. However, the Commissioners had a certain model of fresco in mind when they chose the medium. They interviewed William Dyce, who explained enthusiastically about the Nazarenes in Rome. (7) When the 'Select Committee on Fine Arts' eventually became 'The Commissioners on the Fine Arts' in 1842, they had established an affinity with German monumental and historical painting. This style was admired, in the words of one artist, for its 'compositions, expression, and character'. (8) The Nazarenes, German painters practicing in Italy, were also admired for their 'high mindedness', which fitted very neatly into the English School's long established belief in 'nobleness of conception'. (9) Charles Eastlake, secretary of the Fine Arts Commission and friendly with several Nazarene artists, spoke for many of them when he wrote in the London Magazine:

   For simplicity, holiness and purity, qualities which are the
   characteristics of the scriptural scenes, no style was better
   adapted than that of the Germans.10

That the Commissioners were sympathetic to a 'German' style of painting was evident when the prizes for the first cartoon competition in 1843 were examined. …