The Middlesex Guildhall (The Supreme Court)

The Middlesex Guildhall (The Supreme Court). James Glen Sivewright Gibson (1861-1951). 1906-1913. Portland Stone. Parliament Square, London. Photographs and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2011. [You may use this image and those below without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

The Middlesex Guildhall is the masterpiece of both the architect James Gibson and, arguably, the sculptor Henry Charles Fehr (1851-1940), who was responsible for the rich sculptural decoration inside and out. It was the third courthouse building to be erected on the site of Westminster Abbey's old Sanctuary Tower and Belfry since 1807. As the Visitors' Guide to the building points out, this is a "highly symbolic location, chosen to represent the United Kingdom's separation of powers, with judiciary and legislature balanced on opposite sides of Parliament Square." Gibson was a Scottish-born architect who qualified and started practising in 1889. His partners at this time were William Wallace and (from 1909) the younger men who had been his senior assistants, Frank Peyton Skipwith (1881-1915) and Walter Symington Athol Gordon (b.1879).


Left: The stairwell. Right: The turn of the stairs.

The building is a particularly stunning mix of neo-Gothicism — as seen in the window tracery, for instance — and Art Nouveau — as seen in the sinuously curving line of the stairs. In the two-light window shown above, the neo-Gothic arches and heraldic devices are complemented below by stone-carvings of stylised motifs happily reminiscent of both shields and books, inside elliptical forms. The middle panel here features thistles, but elsewhere emblems of the other parts of the United Kingdom, notably the Tudor rose for England, appear.

Left: Courtroom No. 1 (the old Council Chamber, previously Court 3). Right: Bench-carving showing a boar ravenously eating its prey.

Courtroom No. 1 is resplendent with hammerbeam ceiling, a wealth of carved detail both in wood and stone, the original light-fittings, and heraldic devices in the stained glass of the windows. Fehr's stone-carver here, as for the external sculpture and also for the sculptures of kings and queens and prime ministers at the Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury, was the highly skilled Carl Domenico Magnoni (1871-c.1950), "an anarchist refugee under constant surveillance by agents of the Italian state" (Cormack 101). Particularly attractive heraldic creatures, including a pelican and a hound, are carved into the gallery arch. As for the wood carvings, these were executed by the Glasgow firm of Wylie & Lockhead, and are equally fine. Although this firm used the top designers of the time, Fehr himself was responsible for at least some of the designs, such as those of the oak bench-ends carved with portraits of the country's Kings and Queens, and the arm-rests (see Wilkinson). The bench-carving of the boar is a medieval flourish, very reminiscent of William Burges, and an ominous touch in a courtroom context, but surely playful too.

The Guildhall as a whole can be and has been seen as a late outcrop of neo-Gothicism, a style entirely appropriate to its history and function as a court. The distinctive touches of late Arts and Crafts or Art Nouveau give it a special fillip, and prevent it from seeming old-fashioned Against strong opposition from English Heritage, the Supreme Court, as it now is, was renovated between 2007 and 2009, and has acquired some twenty-first century features as well, such as glass panelling to improve visibility. Much may have been lost, from individual fittings to the completeness of its architects' and craftsmen's vision, but much had also been meticulously restored and even revealed during the process of adaptation.

Related Material


James A. Stivewright Gibbons: Biography Report. DSA (Dictionary of Scottish Architects site). Web. 3 July 2011.

Miele, Chris, ed. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: History, Art, Architecture. London & New York. Merrell, 2010.

"Middlesex Guildhall." English Heritage National Monuments Record, Images of England. Web. 3 July 2011.

"The Supreme Court and the Middlesex Guildhall: The Real Story" (a Save Britain's Heritage site, giving links to several articles about the campaign to prevent the Middlesex Guildhall from being altered). Web.3 July 2011.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: Visitors' Guide and Map. Available at the Supreme Court.

A Self-Guided Tour of the Supreme Court, Crown Copyright 2010. Available at the Supreme Court.

Last modified 6 December 2016