Big Ben: From Monet to modern art
One of the defining features of the London skyline for over 160 years, the Elizabeth Tower has been both the subject of, and featured in the backdrop of many significant works of art
A mere decade after the clocktower was finished, French impressionist Claude Monet depicted the tower in The Thames Below Westminster (1871). At the dawn of the new century, another Frenchman took a far more colourful look at the Tower in the piece Big Ben (1906).
In 2011, American artist Sarah Morris created an abstract artwork of Big Ben for an official London 2021 Paralympics poster. Later, the artwork was selection to be part of Art on the Underground and for a while one of the platforms on Gloucester Road was adorned with a row of abstract Big Bens.
One artist found inspiration in the lines of scaffolding surrounding Big Ben during the 2017 conservation project. London based artist Luke Adam Hawker spent a day drawing the scaffolded clocktower. The original drawing is now a part of the Parliamentary Art Collection.
Art is not just visual, however. In 1998, artist Peter Cusack created an album with Londoners favourite sounds, the sounds that to them are integral to London. Hundreds of people shared their top choice with Cusack and the suggestions were an eclectic mix including “onions frying in my flat,” “rain on skylight while lying in bed” and the call to prayer from an east London mosque. But the clear winner, and the first track on the album Cusack created, was the sounds of Big Ben.
A ‘sound sculpture’ of Big Ben features in Parliamentary Art Collection too. In 2004, the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art commissioned American artist Bill Fontana, who recorded the workings of the bells from inside the Elizabeth Tower, including the ventilation chimney. ‘The Speeds of Time’ were, at one point, played as a live soundtrack to passers-by from the bottom of the tower, every 15 minutes.
Image credit: © The National Gallery, London