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A New Dawn for the Houses of Parliament

Updated: Feb 3

I remember looking up at that great Gothic arch, above the main entrance to the ancient seat of our democracy and wondered... “Will it fit”?


The scaffolding bridged over the doorway to St Stephen’s Hall that leads onto the heart of the Houses of Parliament and to the left of me opened out the thousand-year-old Westminster Hall, with its great hammerbeam roof. I was there to see the installation of an art piece whose dimensions were based on a computer model I had built and my mind neurotically cycled through the details. Were the old architectural drawings I used accurate? What about the measurements I took? And how about the effects of parallax when looking up at the piece from below? Will it fit?!


A couple of years before, in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, a competition was launched to install a new contemporary art piece into the Palace of Westminster. This was won by Mary Branson, an artist who I shared a studio with. She had just completed a six month residency where she gained access to the Parliamentary archives and key figures for her research. I helped her to prototype her various designs, building both computer generated and real scale models to test how they would look in context, before liaising with the engineers and craftspeople who would build it.


The piece would be called “New Dawn” and would take the form of 168 hand blown glass “scrolls” that would represent the 3.6 million signatures on the countless petition scrolls in the lead up to the suffrage vote. This artwork would memorialise not just the Pankhursts of Women’s Suffrage but the movement as a whole. The glass scrolls would be held up on an aluminium frame, taking reference from Parliament’s own portcullis logo. The scrolls would be lit from behind, showing the colours of each organisation that played their part, all synced to the tidal flow of the Thames.


Mary and I in the archive room. Petitions stacked high behind us, some from the age of medieval kings

Master glass artist Adam Aaronson at work

The glass scrolls are a galaxy of coloured glass and silver leaf

I watched nervously as parts of the frame were individually installed, way up high. What if the glass scrolls didn’t fit their housing? Or worse still, one was dropped? What if the whole thing sat just a bit too low leaving an ugly gap? Will it fit?! The scaffolding obscured my view.


The next time I saw it was at the grand opening. A packed Westminster Hall full of lords and ladies, politicians, activists and academics. And there it was. It fit. But I was most struck by the silvery-ness of glass, like the moon, the symbol of womanhood in a masculine space. Then it began to light up, one sole scroll in the centre first, before gradually others around it followed, as it grew and grew to the full new dawn of colours. Just like the movement that it memorialised, it began with a handful of dedicated people and grew into a tide of change. And I’m glad I got to play my part.



The final piece installed. Photo: Emma Brown

Above the doorway to the Houses of Parliament. Photo Emma Brown


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