A hall of majesty, not fakery: St George's Hall, Windsor Castle, was in its third incarnation when the fire struck last November; there is no reason why it could not change again, argues Mark Girouard

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN does compromise cease to be sensible and become ridiculous? I would suggest in the proposals for St George's Hall at Windsor Castle, part of the package unveiled by the Lord Chamberlain last Thursday. He announced complete restoration of the Grand Reception Room and Green and Crimson Drawing Rooms, and the redesign of the Private Chapel and two small adjacent rooms. These were clear-cut decisions, backed by strong arguments.

Then the message became blurred. The State Dining Room 'may be' redesigned. St George's Hall is to be 'restored as it was before'. Yes, but . . . its demolished ceiling and east wall 'may be' replaced to a new design. This sounds like a committee compromise, with one bone thrown to the presidents of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Fine Art Commission, and another to the chairman of English Heritage - all three were consulted.

St George's Hall, as it was until much of it went up in smoke on 20 November, was a neo-Gothic room designed in the 1820s by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, as part of a new look given to the castle (paid for, incidentally, by the nation, not by the king). In the manner of the time it had arcaded plaster walls, imitating stone, and a plaster ceiling, imitating wood. The latter looked like a structural roof, but was in fact suspended from the real roof, with a sizeable void in between, through which the flames galloped.

Somewhat more than half of the room's decorative features were destroyed in the fire, including the ceiling, except for a few fragments, the east wall, with its throne and gallery, a substantial part of the decoration of the main north wall, and all the stained glass.

Whatever one may have thought of Wyatville's room, it was at least all of a piece. There are arguments for restoring it all of the same piece, as far as that is possible. It was part of a historic listed building; a good deal of it survives; the missing bits can be replaced relatively easily, for its detail was repetitive and uncomplicated; to do so is the safe solution. The result would be more than half a fake, but the fake could be convincing.

What is not a valid argument is the one put forward by the Lord Chamberlain, that the room 'should be restored as it was before' because it is 'the ceremonial centre for the historic order of St George and its previous decoration incorporated the arms of the Knights of the Garter since its foundation in 1348'. The room is indeed a traditional centre for the Order of the Garter, but the tradition has been to redecorate it every few centuries. The hall has had three incarnations so far.

The original 14th-century room had an open timber roof and exposed stone walls. This was entirely remodelled in the 1680s, as a classical room with walls and ceiling covered with frescoes by Antonio Verrio. Verrio's frescoes were blotted out by Wyatville's Gothic, and the room doubled in length in the process.

One argument for continuing this tradition and giving the room a new incarnation in the 1990s is that Wyatville's hall was not a very interesting or successful room. It was all of a piece, but a second-rate piece. The original hall, as far as one can judge from one inadequate engraving, was a noble medieval room. The second hall was a stunning baroque stage set, packed with incident and allusion. Wyatville's hall was a stage set, too, but in the romantic manner, using its plaster props to evoke the medieval origins and heraldic history of the Garter. The trouble was that, unlike other romantic stage sets of the period, it lacked conviction.

Another argument for change is that Windsor Castle - unlike, for instance, Hampton Court - is a working palace, which has absorbed change over the centuries to fit the changing image of the monarchy. The room has an important function, which could be expanded. In addition to its Garter uses, visiting heads of state are entertained there. To present them with an image of life and adaptation is at least as appropriate as one of a country and monarchy glued into the past.

A third argument is that this is an opportunity for major creative patronage - instead of minor patronage, which is what the play-safe solution of redoing two or three comparatively unimportant rooms would achieve. It was because I found the possibility of this kind of patronage exciting that, in the last section of a book on Windsor Castle which I have just completed, I asked a selection of architects, artists and designers to present ideas for the hall.

At much the same time, and quite independently, Country Life launched an ideas competition for all the fire-damaged portions of the castle. It is planned to exhibit both projects at the Architecture Foundation's gallery in Bury Street, London, in July.

These are unofficial enterprises. What I (and I suspect Country Life) hoped to stimulate was a competition sponsored by the Palace and the Government, of which St George's Hall could be the centrepiece.

If what decoration survives in the hall was work of superb craftsmanship or had centuries of historic association, there would be an argument for keeping it and asking designers to work around it. But to treat Wyatville's surviving fragments as sacrosanct shows an absurd over- estimation of their quality, and hamstrings any new design.

Most of the architects who contributed to my book went back to the medieval hall for inspiration. Within the existing outline they produced genuine structural roofs, and very beautiful these are. But to combine this kind of roof with Wyatville's walls would be an uncomfortable and unnecessary mixture of metaphors.

One of the advantages of the hall, in terms of new design, is that it is a space loaded with architectural, historical and symbolic messages. There is plenty to stimulate designers there, as opposed to the Private Chapel and Dining Room, where they would be working, relatively speaking, in a vacuum. In addition to a structural response, inspired by the medieval roof, it is possible to work from Verrio and Wyatville and design a contemporary stage set for ceremonial events, using every available technological resource of lighting and materials.

The potentialities of drawing on the symbolic associations of the room and reinterpreting them are endless: what greater theme for artists and sculptors could there be than that of St George and the Dragon, the fight of good against evil. It would be equally possible to retain the fire-blackened and shattered room, at least in part, as an evocative piece of history in itself. What this means is that different creative people will react to the room in different ways, and should be allowed to do so.

Perhaps a competition would fail to produce a sufficiently convincing and usable new solution. In this case one could go back to Wyatville. I would find this a sad admission of failure, of a castle and monarchy withdrawn from the real world and preserved under glass as tourist attractions.

The author's book, 'Windsor: The Most Romantic Castle', will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in mid-July.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments