Jenkins visits his brother-in-law Roddy Cutts at the House of Commons:
Callot-like figures pervaded labyrinthine corridors. Cavernous alcoves were littered with paraphernalia of scaffolding and ropes, Piranesian frameworks hinting of torture and execution, but devised only to repair bomb damage to structure and interior ornaments. [BDFR 181-2/170 ]
The Houses of Parliament were damaged by German bombs on 14 occasions, the worst destroying the Chamber of the House of Commons on the night of May 10-11 1941. When Jenkins visits in 1946, repairs are still in progress. The architect of the restoration was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the classic British red telephone kiosk. The Chamber did not reopen until October, 1950.
Jacques Callot (1592 -1635) was a printmaker and engraver from the Duchy of Lorraine. He studied in Florence and Rome and made a number of important technical contributions to the art of etching. He produced thousands of preparatory drawings and more than 1,400 etchings, most no more than six inches in greatest dimension. His precisely drawn figures were rarely more than two inches tall. Among his best known works is a series of 18 etchings, Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, published in 1633, showing the effect of the Thirty Years War on the populace. We show Le Pilage, plate 5 from this series, even though it shows destruction rather than construction; it is a fine example of Callot’s small, detailed men and women busy in a chamber of horrors.
Speaking of scaffolding and ropes, pull the image close to study the human carcass suspended over the fire in the background right. Each etching is accompanied by a verse, attributed to Abbé Marolles, describing the abhorent acts.
Jenkins has previously evoked Piranesi’s masterful depiction of ruins when he described the rundown precincts of Shepherd Market. Here, in the House of Commons, hints of “torture and execution” direct us to another portion of Piranesi’s work, Le Carceri d’Invenzione. Piranesi published two series of etchings, illustrating his fantasies of prisons (carceri), 14 in 1750 and a reworked series of 16 in 1761.
Here Powell is using visual art at his best. He directs us to powerful, but not universally known, works by Old Masters to create new tropes for contemporary calamity.