A new bronze bell has been installed above the chapel at Qatari Diar’s Chelsea Barracks development, putting the finishing touch to an extensive refurbishment programme.
The two year project has involving a host of British artisans including lime plasterers, fresco painters, tilers and stained glass experts. The new bronze bell, an exact replica of the damaged original, was commissioned from the last surviving bell maker in the UK, Taylor & Co of Loughborough.
The peal will be a welcome sound to campaigners who feared the old Guard’s Chapel – literally a hidden gem – would be demolished. It’s story shows how much has changed since the 12.8 acre site was sold for residential development. Qatari Diar, the property wing of the Qatar royal family, paid a record £1billion to the Ministry of Defence at the height of the property boom in 2007/8 but early designs by architectural practice Rogers + Stirk & Partners – which did not appear to include preserving the chapel – met with strong opposition.
In response to a vociferous public campaign led by residents and backed by Army veterans, Prince Charles wrote personally to the Emir of Qatar to voice concerns and propose a more traditional scheme in keeping with Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea next door. The controversial intervention led to Lord Rogers’ plans being abandoned and a new scheme drawn up in consultation with residents. In 2012, the chapel was also awarded a Grade II listing which ensured its future.
Built in 1859, the small Romanesque-style chapel is all that remains of the massive barracks buildings designed by George Morgan after the Crimean War. It was for many soldiers not just a place of worship but a community centre. Hundreds of army personnel were christened and married here and it survived both bombings in the Second World War and the demolition of the original Victorian barracks.
However the MoD failed to protect the chapel, which had been stripped bare, when it sold the site with a senior officer stating that it was of “no architectural or historical interest whatsoever”. Despite this aggressive dismissal, the heritage value of the chapel, and in particular two tile panels, was eventually recognised five years later.
The panels, which have been sensitively restored and remain in situ, bear the names of soldiers in killed in action in the 1880s making them war memorials. They are of particular significance for being among the first plaques dedicated to non-officer class soldiers.
“The chapel has a series of remarkable tiled panels commemorating private Guardsmen who died between 1885-8,” said Delcia Keate, English Heritage’s senior designation advisor in 2012. “Memorials to named private soldiers were uncommon in the late-19th century, and these show how the most junior ranks in the Victorian Army were gradually being accorded the respect of remembrance.”
Francesca Wilkinson, senior design manager for Qatari Diar, has led the team that have undertaken the restoration, including the order for a new bell from Taylor & Co whose previous commissions include bells for St Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster and a host of other clients.
“The restoration has been a two year project and it has involved bringing in many specialised trades, some of whom still work in a very hands on back of the envelope fashion,” said Ms Wilkinson.
“We have created a new set of windows to replace some offensive frosted glass ones that had been installed following bomb damage in World War II. The rose window has been painstakingly repaired and cleaned and it has become the motif for Chelsea Barracks. We have also commissioned a new red rose from Kew Gardens which will be planted around the new buildings.”
Architecturally the new apartment blocks in phases 1-3 of the project, designed by Squire and Partners, take their cues from notable mansions in Belgravia and are lower and more traditional than the steel and glass apartments proposed by Rogers + Stirk.
Among other notable changes in the masterplan is the creation of a much larger public realm which will include gardens and cycleways, as well as shops and restaurants. A sculpture inspired by London’s oldest botanical garden – the Chelsea Physic Garden – has been commissioned from British artist Conrad Shawcross while the chapel itself is to become a new art gallery.
“Chelsea Barracks has placed a significant emphasis on both craftsmanship and art in its plans for the community and Shawcross is the first of a series of artists appointed to create works for the seven new garden squares,” said Lee Hallman, head of design at Qatari Diar.
It will be the first time for 150 years that the public will have access to this historic site however, that said, they will have to wait at least until 2019 when the first phase is complete.
*Two bed apartments at Chelsea Barracks start from
£5.25million and townhouses from £37 million. See www.chelseabarracks.com