Saccharine Survivors: William Parker’s Assembly Room Chandeliers
By Anastasia Kinigopoulo, WPAMC Class of 2020
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.
As much as I enjoyed the moldings, it was the chandeliers, designed by William Parker and Jonathan Collet, that captured my attention.
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.
Floating amid the cake-like decoration, the crystal branches beckoned me ever closer, until I found myself standing directly beneath them.
Seen from below, they transformed into stunning abstract forms set off against the plasterwork on the ceiling.
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.
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.
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.