Originally constructed in 1842 and eventually demolished in 1928, the pavilion was an expression of the aspirations and anxieties of an age. It was designated by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a site for testing the feasibility of fresco painting as a major form of British art and a decorative option for the recently reconstructed Palace of Westminster. After the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834, the status of the arts became a topic of considerable public interest by 1840, when a select committee was formed to determine what kind of art should be commissioned for the new Palace, designed in its present high gothic style by Charles Barry for the Houses of Parliament. Following much debate, the committee recommended fresco as the medium most conducive to “the advancement of the arts” in England. Between 1843 and 1845, Victoria’s garden pavilion became a hub of artistic activity. The central octagon room of the pavilion was decorated with frescoes of scenes from John Milton’s masque Comus, and two small side-rooms were decorated with frescoes inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and encaustic paintings of artifacts recovered from Pompeii. The overall effect was heightened by the incorporation of elaborate ceiling details, cornices, friezes, floor designs, and bas-relief figures rendered in materials ranging from marble to paper mache. Even through the combined floor space of the three rooms measured less than 300 square feet, the pavilion incorporated the designs of approximately three dozen prominent artists and craftsmen of the early Victorian period.
For a time, the Queen’s pavilion was a nexus of taste-making, technical experimentation, and mythical reimagination of Victorian Britain. But the attentions of the Victorian public and art world soon turned elsewhere, including to the new forms of gallery display, large-scale exhibition culture, and the conservatory architecture that, in the form of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, would overshadow the quaint and eccentric pavilion. Already suspicious as a garden folly built in the politically tumultuous 1840s, the pavilion’s interest would cede to other major events and concerns of the tumultuous century. Falling into poor repair during World War I, Victoria’s pavilion was dismantled in 1928, a curious artifact of the young empire’s experiments in fashioning an artistic signature and a national imaginary.
Additional information about the building’s history, contents, participating artists, contemporary reactions, and a bibliography will be featured in a second release of this website in 2015.