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Decorating the corridors of power

UNDERRATED The case for the Westminster murals
The corridors of power in the Palace of Westminster hold secrets beyond mere political intrigue. Here, within Pugin and Barry's Gothic masterpiece, lies one of Britain's least appreciated art treasures.

The Westminster murals began life in 1841 as an annual competition to decorate the recently completed Houses of Parliament. Devised by a commission chaired by Prince Albert, this contest, the Turner Prize of its day, fired the imagination of young British artists and brought them flocking back across the channel from Continental ateliers. The objective was to promote British art through the depiction of the moral roots of Victorian government. Subject matter was to be historic / allegorical and the medium the much-admired Renaissance technique of fresco, recently revived in Germany.

The first commission went to the Scotsman William Dyce, the only fresco expert in the country. His painting - The Baptism of Ethelbert - was completed in 1846. Three years later though, only three other works in the grandiose scheme had been produced. From numerous submissions, four artists had been chosen for major contributions: Dyce, Daniel Maclise, Charles West Cope and John Callcott Horsley. All were to discover, however, that what appeared to be an accolade would quickly become a curse.

After his initial success with Ethelbert, Dyce was allotted the honour of painting the larger allegories and scenes from the life of King Arthur in the Royal Robing Room. An honour, yes, but Dyce was to fall victim to the Victorian obsession with accuracy. For the last 16 years of his life he was a slave to nothing but "a great quantity of chain mail". He even changed his official address to the Palace of Westminster. All of the artists became shackled to their commissions. As Horsely put it: "Our keen enthusiasm... absorbed the very flower of our youth." If the time absorbed was a problem for the artists, the resulting drain on funds was a disaster for the scheme as a whole - many unpaid assistants were fobbed off with commissions, and what we see today is only a fraction of what was originally envisaged.

But by far the worst difficulty was created by the choice of medium. Fresco, the Renaissance luminosity of which had survived well in the warmth of southern Europe, was simply not suited to the cold, damp, polluted conditions of the mid-Victorian city. The two best-known frescoes - Maclise's magisterially romantic Death of Nelson and Meeting of Wellington - and Blucher after Waterloo, although still magnificent, are now but shadows of their former selves. On their unveiling they were praised for their vibrancy of colour - their present sombre tonality is the consequence of fogs and sewer gases rising from the nearby Thames. Even as he painted, Maclise could daily observe the heart-breaking, unstoppable blackening of his previous work. He was not alone.As early as 1862 Dyce was forced to restore Ethelbert, painted only 16 years earlier. Cope wrote: "Time's effacing fingers began to obliterate at one end, while we were painfully working on the other."

Even within the last decade experts have uncovered unique, previously unknown early frescoes by G F Watts and John Tenniel, later the illustrator of Alice in Wonderland. So dreadful was their condition that they had been boarded over with wallpaper for over a century.

The Westminster frescoes should be compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the development of British painting - a tradition generally considered to have little to offer in the way of History Painting. Their inspired design and unhappy history make apoignant tribute to the underestimated creative vision and selfless idealism of the Victorian artist.