Laser Love

Back in the late 90s, while on part of a nationwide initiative to tart up all of France’s cathedrals, it occurred to the mayor of Amiens that the beautiful Cathedral there had probably not always been quite so – well – tastefully monochrome in its appearance. That in its medieval heyday, all the saints and decorations would have been a riot of colour, painted in varying garish hues, bringing the place to life.

Sure enough, as the decorations right on top of the cathedral were given a spruce-up, traces of the original paints were found. The mayor was delighted and not a little smug.

Now, even given it being the millennium and all, the Mayor knew that no one was going to wear his climbing up the scaffolding in smock and beret and painting all the saints’ beards red again.

But the French are very good at many things – and son-et-lumiere is just one of many including the obvious – champagne, Bouillebasse and the Gallic Shrug. At a cost of heaven-knows-how-much, a specially-cut laser gobo was attached to a projector, and now, for an hour each evening in summer, Amiens cathedral is lit to look like it would have done around 700 years ago.

I have never seen it, so I confess to having borrowed a picture from this website, where you can find more examples of just how great it looks, as well as what it looks like during the day.

Now. I was visiting the Queen’s House on Saturday. And one thing you can’t level at the Queen’s House is garishness. In fact, for a place that’s seen so much history, I find it hard to get any real feel of what went on in there. There are some fabulous paintings, and the building itself is seminal – I would call it austerely beautiful. But as a place where so much happened, it’s soulless. I get no sense of anyone living – or doing anything – here. Its a sophisticated, tasteful art gallery. But that’s it.

On Open House Day last year, I went to Marlborough House to see the Gentileschi paintings that originally adorned those sad, empty, achingly beautiful ceiling panels in the cube room of the Queens House. It reminded me how much a bit of colour would bring some life to those empty roundels I saw on Saturday.

Of course there’s no way the Commonwealth Secretariat will ever let us have those paintings back (hell – they won’t even let you photograph them…) but I understand that back in the 90s, there was a similar experiment to the Mayor of Amiens’s laser display to put the pictures on the Queen’s House ceiling by projection.

I keep reading very sniffy accounts of how the Queen’s House was in the 90s, largely, it seems, by purists who didn’t like the idea of populating the place with fake furniture and rooms of – goodness – different period styles. I can’t really comment on that – I don’t remember it. I only went once (you had to pay back then – not everything is worse these days…) and it was ages ago.

The guidebooks I have from the 70s and 80s appear to have a totally different picture in that centre circle, ‘attributed to Sir James Thornhill.’ I have absolutely no idea what happened to that. Was it painted-out in an attack of ‘taste?’ If it was, then I’m against the ’90s update too. The Maybe-Thornhill might not be part of the original Jones plan – but neither is a blank white space.

Now we have nothing. A dull building that was once Glamour Personified.

Why did this Scanachrome projection of the Gentileschi murals stop?

Maybe it was considered old-fashioned, and went out the same time as the rest of the ’90s ‘improvements.’ Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps.

Maybe the images were a bit fuzzy. Well – just take a peek at those saints on Amiens Cathedral. And they’re 3D statues. Lasers can do amazing things these days.

Perhaps it was that old perennial – cash. But hang on. They’ve just been given twenty million quid. But – oh, sorry. That’s for the maritime part of the museum. And maybe the Queen’s House is one of the poor relations who won’t see any of that.

To be honest, I don’t know why the projections went.

But now I’m asking. Can we have them back? What aesthetic harm would they do if the ceiling murals were projected for an hour a day, other than to perhaps bring a bit of much-needed life into a sombre building of great worthiness? It might even increase visitor numbers. (personally I’d have them animated too, so the figures would ‘dance’ – but maybe that is going a little too far…)

Do you remember the Scanachrome projection? Was it any cop? Would some laser-love brighten up this beautiful, currently-slightly-dull building?

Comments are closed.