The Great Chamber has played host to grand royal occasions and was the backdrop to decades of Tudor plotting and intrigue. It is the only Tudor great chamber to survive in London and remains the jewel in the crown of this ancient historic site on the edge of the City.
The Great Chamber represents an important example of London's architectural past as well as the scene of many great moments of London's history. Originally built on the site of a Carthusian monastery by Edward North in the 1540s, it was referred to as the 'Throne Room' after Elizabeth I held her first Privy Council there before being crowned Queen of England. Elizabeth went on to visit several more times – often almost bankrupting the Charterhouse's successive owners as they hosted her in befitting style.
This splendid chamber continued to be used when the buildings became a school and almshouse, founded by Thomas Sutton, in 1611. It remained more or less untouched until it suffered serious bomb damage during the Second World War. After the war, a major project was initiated to renovate the room to match the one remaining undamaged section, and the room has since been well-used and much admired by the visiting public.
In 2017 the Charterhouse was awarded funding by the National Heritage Lottery Fund to finance a new refurbishment programme. The aim of the project was to create a more environmentally sustainable interior that also did better justice to the Chamber's extraordinary history and splendour.
The project will also ensure the Chamber's suitability for an expanded range of ways it can be shared with the public. Our plans are on hold due to the coronavirus lockdown, but as soon as we can open again, the intention is to attract new audiences to concerts, exhibitions, and other events to raise income for the Charterhouse charity – the almshouse originally established in 1611 and still flourishing today.
The funding award also supports staffing and implementing an outreach programme aimed at introducing diverse audiences from the local community to the history of the Charterhouse and its purpose today. We have already initiated this Community Engagement programme, running creative online workshops, inspired by aspects of the Great Chamber and its portraits, with partners such as North London Cares, Age UK Islington, and BlindAid.
We were able to commence this project in 2019, and with a short hold up due to the pandemic, we were fortunate enough to be able to complete the work in spring 2020, and we held a virtual launch which you can watch on YouTube.
Richard Griffiths Architects were selected, after a competitive tender process, to conceive and implement the redesign. A significant new development was the moving of the Charterhouse's most notable portraits onto the walls of the Chamber, having been cleaned and restored by conservator Jim Dimond.
The new design references several different architectural schemes from different centuries. The colours from the fireplace and overmantel (dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) are carried throughout the space and a green silk moiré provides the backdrop for our important collection of Restoration portraits. The floor has been replaced with boards of varying sizes and widths, referencing its post-Reformation origins.
The works now hung in the Great Chamber comprise large seventeenth-century oil paintings of our Restoration era governors and include portraits of some of the periods most influential and controversial Royals, politicians and religious leaders. The pre-eminence of the sitters attests to the prominence of the Charterhouse during the period. They include portraits of the Duke of Monmouth, the Earl of Craven, the Duke of Buckingham, Gilbert Sheldon (Archbishop of Canterbury), Anthony Ashely Cooper – first Earl of Shaftesbury and Charles II.
The collection is mentioned in George Vertue's notebooks in 1736. The collection continued to be highly regarded and discussed in numerous documentary sources of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In May 1941, when the Charterhouse was bombed, the paintings were evacuated and did not return to London until 1957, by which time it seems that they had slipped from public and academic consciousness. Recent funding from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art has enabled ongoing research which has established the collection's broader cultural and historic significance, both to the institution and wider fields of academic study.
When the works were completed, we invited Alderman William Russell, the Rt Hon the Lord Mayor of the City of London, to be the first to see it. He said: 'I am very excited to see the success of this project in person. In my view, it is one of the most splendid rooms in London, if not the country, and now this magnificent space has been restored to its former glory and fit for a queen once again. I hope, as I am sure we all hope, that visitors will be able to enjoy it and appreciate its majesty for themselves soon.'
In normal times we would be throwing open our doors to the public to discover the sumptuous changes in person but, as an almshouse charity, we need to stay closed during the pandemic until we can ensure the safety of our older and more vulnerable residents. In the meantime, we have created a virtual experience of the transformed Great Chamber on our website, where you can discover more about its history, the splendid collection of portraits now on display, and the detail of the refurbishment project.
Gabriella Swaffield, Charterhouse's Museum Manager