Saccharine Survivors: William Parker’s Assembly Room Chandeliers

By Anastasia Kinigopoulo, WPAMC Class of 2020

A cathedral, Bath Abbey, on a sunny morning. The street in front of it is covered with ice and snow.

Bath Abbey, one of our first stops, on an icy winter morning.

The morning of our last Saturday in England found us making our way though the frozen Bath streets on a tour of the city’s buildings with architectural historian Amy Frost. Popularized by Queen Anne in the early 18th century, Bath served as a resort town for the well-to-do during the Georgian era, a place where one could come to see and be seen.  The city’s naturally flowing springs were believed to hold medicinal properties and were an attraction for the glitterati of the day.

By mid-morning, the class warmed up in a cafe housed in the Assembly Rooms, a building by architect John Wood the Younger which served as a dancehall and gathering place in the late 18th century.  Never one to ignore an open door, I found myself drawn away from the admittedly enticing smell of coffee and into the building. I passed through the massive rooms, greeted by soft hues and controlled ornament of restored Neoclassical plasterwork.

A chandelier is seen through a mirror within a Rococo frame on a yellow wall. Above it is a white plaster molding with decorative floral ornament. Below is a Neoclassical fireplace mantle.

One of the Assembly Room chandeliers, seen through a mirror in the Octagon Room.

As much as I enjoyed the moldings, it was the chandeliers, designed by William Parker and Jonathan Collet, that captured my attention.

Five huge chandeliers hang in a large blue ballroom with extensive decoration on the ceiling.

William Parker’s five chandeliers in the Ball Room.

Parker, who is largely credited with introducing Neoclassical elements to chandelier design, produced the lighting for the Assembly Rooms in 1771.  These were an early commission during his long, successful career and, according to a nearby interpretive panel, are now considered the finest surviving 18th century chandeliers in the world.

A chandelier seen from below. The branches form a star-like pattern. Behind, beige and coffee colored floral plasterwork can be seen against the blue of the ceiling.

One of Parker’s chandeliers from below.

Floating amid the cake-like decoration, the crystal branches beckoned me ever closer, until I found myself standing directly beneath them.

Another star-like pattern of a chandelier from below. The octagon molding on the ceiling can be seen behind it.

The largest of the chandeliers, in the Octagon Room.

Seen from below, they transformed into stunning abstract forms set off against  the plasterwork on the ceiling.

A fireplace molding with rainbow light refracted through a chandelier prism.

Light refracted through a chandelier.

In one space, dangling prisms split the mid afternoon sunshine into a rainbow of color on the fireplace mantle.

Curiously, the chandeliers were actually the only undamaged element of the Assembly Rooms. Many of the spaces were altered in the 19th century. Further damage to the space occurred during World War II, when the building was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The attacks were part of a series of raids targeting heritage sites in England. As the surviving portions of one room attest and Frost pointed out, the limestone with which the rooms are built turned a pink hue when exposed to heat of the bombings. Luckily, the chandeliers were taken down and placed into storage when the war began. They escaped the raids unharmed.

A corner of a room with Neoclassical decorative elements. The limestone of the columns and niches is a salmon-pink.

The limestone in the Tea Room turned pink from the heat of the bombings.

The Assembly Rooms were restored in the late 20th century, but not before the chandeliers miraculously escaped damage when plasterwork in the Ball Room fell off the ceiling.  Though the rooms’ original color schemes have been lost, the light blue of the Ball Room was based on a period paint chip. I would be the first to argue that the effect of the paint coupled with the chandeliers succeeds in conjuring the grandeur of the space as it may have appeared in the 18th century.

A chandelier with many branches hangs in a large room.  Behind it is a walkway set on top of a series of limestone columns.  On the ground floor are three doors.

A chandelier in the Tea Room.

Art and architecture historians love the term “remarkable survival.” It encapsulates both gratitude and astonishment at the presence of a work of art that has escaped the centuries’ ravages.  To me, the Assembly Room chandeliers are the epitome of a remarkable survival … objects that, in spite of their delicacy, have beaten the odds, to charm us today just they as did Georgian revelers in Bath’s heyday.

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