Much like it’s next door neighbour the Palace of Westminster (or Parliament if you want to be colloquial) Westminster Abbey has been at the centre of the Capital’s public life for over a thousand years. So many of the great cultural figures of our history are buried or memorialised there that it’s almost impossible not to find yourself accidentally standing on the memorial of some famous name; proliferating over the centuries into something approaching sepulchral crazy paving. The abbey is a true embarrassment of historical and architectural riches, to the point where it can be slightly overwhelming to a first time visitor. Indeed, the winding path which snakes through the abbey can initially seem to follow a logic that has only a passing familiarity with Euclidian geometry. For those who haven’t visited the abbey, their mental image of the church tends to be a bird’s eye view from its upper galleries, an image derived not from a spatially oriented imagination, but from a televised royal wedding or from a coronation. Though considering that the last (and indeed, only) screened coronation was Queen Elizabeth’s ascension in 1953, it seems more likely to be the former.
For over seven centuries the galleries which provide that view, which John Betjemen referred to as “the best [view] in Europe”, have been closed to the public. The rooms were originally constructed in the mid-13th century in the midst of Henry III’s sweeping rebuild of the church and seemed to have been planned to serve as chapels, mirroring those on the floor below. However like everything else in the world the church has its fashions and, as the reworks ground on, the ecclesiastical intelligentsia came to feel that chapels were deeply passé. A victim to changing fashions, the gantries that that have become the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries were therefore never completed according to their original design. As a result, the galleries soon bowed to the law of rooms without a clear function: they became a storage room for all the random miscellanea that multiplies in any inhabited building over the years. Only in this case the time scale wasn’t single digit years but centuries, and the ‘junk’ priceless relics of Britain’s past.
With the advent of television, the Galleries finally found a purpose beyond storage when their unparalleled views saw them serving as the nerve centre from every broadcast (the first Royal wedding held at the abbey slightly preceded television, taking place as it did in 1100). Regardless of the view, this has never been an exactly convenient arrangement. Initially the only entrance to the galleries was a vertiginous spiral staircase that thought ‘room to manoeuvre’ was the title of a Tennessee Williams play. The stairs were deemed completely unsatisfactory for public use and the Abbey undertook drastic action; in the shape of the Weston Tower: the most significant addition to the building itself since Nicholas Hawksmoor’s West Towers were completed in 1745. The new tower bursts from the courtyard outside Poet’s Corner, a thrusting gothic spike, rearing between the buttresses of the Abbey like a crenulated shark fin. The star-shaped Weston Tower, named for a private donor, is pulling double duty in not only conveying tourists to the Galleries but also by obliterating the grim 1950s lavatory block which used to squat apologetically in its place. The tower was designed by Ptolemy Dean, the Abbey’s in-house consultant architect, who bears the suitably florid title of ‘Surveyor of the Fabric’. It must be said, he’s done a fine job.
At first glance the tower blends seamlessly into the vaunting gothic of the ancient masonry surrounding it. However Dean has laid his own modern stamp on the tower: encasing it in sinuous bronze, which snakes along the flashing glass of the glass frontage like a snarl of parasitic vine across strong oak. Whilst such a bold fusion of styles could run the risk of looking gauche when placed next to such an ancient edifice, it is instead entirely in keeping with the building’s architectural profligacy. Westminster Abbey’s exterior is such a conglomeration of differing styles and motifs that entire architectural movements wax and wane across the face of the abbey like fossils erupting from geological strata. Moving beyond its borderline steampunk exterior, the Tower houses a lift alongside a staircase which doesn’t view breathing space as a sign of moral turpitude. Once you emerge from the Tower into the galleries, the space is pleasantly bright and airy, the product of five years work and nearly 23 million pounds of investment from private donors. Whilst the Galleries have been painstakingly cleared of their ancient contents, in what could presumably have been screened as the most highbrow episode of Storage Wars ever put to tape, Westminster Abbey have repurposed the space as a miniature museum of its own history.
The various exhibits are loosely grouped into three thematic segments, but really it’s a grab bag of over 300 objects that either have not been exhibited recently or have never seen the light of day. Ancient weapons glint darkly next to stained glass representation of notably brutal martyrdoms and gorgeously illuminated medieval texts practically burn with fuming gold and aqueous blue. As a final outré touch these exhibits are watched over by the glassy, yet still imperious stare of life-sized marionette representations of long dead kings and queens. These ventriloquist fever dreams are one of the centrepiece of the exhibition, the enigmatic dénouement of a long extinct tradition; which saw the exact likenesses of recently deceased royals carved and dressed in their own clothes to receive funereal homage from the grieving British public. After this day in the limelight they would vanish into the cavernous bowels of the abbey, and are only now, returning to the public eye with Norma Desmond-esque pomp. Beyond the little human surprises of these wooden memento mori (who knew that Mary Tudor had a pot belly?) stranger details creep in; a king’s sagging mouth indicates his probable death from a stroke; the bald queens emit a gender fluidity that wouldn’t be out of place in the 21st century. Even the staunchest Leninist should be able to uncover some pathos in these long dead aristocrats.
Also on offer are the faux-Crown jewels, which look real enough to save on a trip to see the originals, and the wedding certificate of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Both exhibits seem likely to pull in their fair share of punters who might otherwise feel that history should be left in the past, but really the central draw is the galleries themselves. The exhibitions have carefully been aligned to avoid standing in direct sunlight and the whole space is lit by light flaring through titanic stained glass portals. It’s the perfect backdrop to the stunning view of the interior of the abbey, previously reserved exclusively for God and BBC camera men. Perhaps John Betjemen was over egging the pudding somewhat, but it’s well worth the clamber to look down on the history of England, plotted out in marble and glass.