The chapel at Lambeth Palace is one of the oldest extant parts of the site, dating back to the early thirteenth century. In the intervening years, it has been subject to many alterations and additions, some of which have been unwittingly forced upon it: most dramatically, the direct hit by an incendiary bomb on 10 May 1940, when the Victorian stained glass and vaulted ceiling, richly decorated by William Burges, were completely destroyed.
Subsequently, the chapel fabric was restored under the auspices of Archbishop Fisher in the early 1950s, with the reinstatement of the vaulted roof and the installation of newly commissioned stained glass.
However, perhaps the most striking feature to anyone who visits the chapel today is the brightly, some might say garishly, painted murals on the vaulted ceiling. These were painted by the British artist Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012) between 1987-1988, during the archiepiscopate of Robert Runcie (1980-1991), who wanted to brighten up and beautify the interior of the chapel.
Rosoman, who was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Royal Academy and a book, is perhaps best known for his depictions of the Blitz, largely informed by his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War II, and for his role as Official War Artist from 1945.
But in 1987 he undertook a very different commission when he was given an open brief by the newly convened Chapel Advisory Group to enhance the plain white ceiling that was a result of the 1950s restoration. The Advisory Group had begun meeting at Lambeth Palace in May 1987, and after selecting Rosoman, they gave him free rein to come up with ideas; the only firm stipulation they made was Archbishop Runcie’s desire for a depiction of Christ to be placed above the altar.
The ceiling, 36 metres long and 10 metres wide, consisted of five vaults. Using Lambeth Palace Library, Rosoman extensively researched his topic and after some false starts settled on five subjects: St. Augustine’s arrival in England; the life of Becket; the consecration of Matthew Parker; the Lambeth Conference and, as Runcie had requested, the head of Christ at the east end.
Work commenced in October 1987, with the chapel ceiling primed in acrylic gesso and then painted in acrylics by Rosoman and three students, using similar methods to those of the great Renaissance painters. The work was physically demanding, with Rosoman often forced to paint lying on his back or crouching down, and he lost twenty pounds during the project as a result.
Despite some frustrations and delays, once underway work progressed quickly, with Rosoman completing nearly three of the panels in under a month. The colour scheme of the ceiling moved from dark to light as it progressed from west to east, with the initial panel of Pope Gregory assigning St. Augustine to take Christianity to England painted in austere monochrome, with the two figures in white against a dark background.
The life of Becket interested Rosoman, and he was particularly taken with a story from his early life, when the young Becket dived into a mill-race to rescue his hawk, miraculously escaping death. This supposed turning point in his life was unknown to the Chapel Advisory Group, but was depicted in the second panel along with another lesser-known event: the ritual of the Thames boatmen doffing their caps to the martyr’s statue that was situated in the river-facing wall of the palace as they passed it. In contrast, a final image of the martyrdom of Becket completed the panel.
The consecration of Archbishop Parker in 1559 was depicted as it reflected a turning point in the history of the Church of England. Parker, whose bones are interred in the chapel, is shown being anointed by four fellow bishops and Rosoman also slyly represented himself, depicted as a choirboy.
The final panel, showing the head of Christ with a crown of thorns, apparently made Runcie uneasy due to its size and the expression of anxiety the face conveyed, but Rosoman was insistent that it conformed to the medieval tradition and that the expression was one of suffering. Runcie’s concerns were allayed and ultimately the Chapel Advisory Group were very pleased with the results.
The project was completed in June 1988, with relatively little publicity, and on 2 November 1988 a service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel, with a sermon preached by Runcie which focused on the iconography of the ceiling.
The records of this commission and the work that Rosoman undertook are preserved as part of the papers of Archbishop Runcie (Runcie/CHAPEL/1-64). This collection also documents other works that were undertaken in the chapel at the same time as part of a substantial restoration. The papers include the correspondence and minutes of the Chapel Advisory Group, which documents the selection process for the ceiling commission, and Rosoman’s proposals; as well as the various works that were undertaken to other parts of the chapel including the Laudian screen, the floor, and the furnishings. Supplementing these papers are photographs which document the various elements of the chapel before, during, and after the restoration process. Although some of the material is currently closed, it will be made available gradually over the next few years in line with release of other Archbishops’ papers via the Library’s online catalogue. The papers will provide an invaluable resource for understanding the lasting contribution of Leonard Rosoman to the restoration of this ancient chapel.