The Duke of Wellington’s funeral car was designed by Richard Redgrave and Gottfried Semper at the Department of Practical Art, South Kensington, in the autumn of 1852. Despite its lavish and costly design, the car was largely deemed a failure. Charles Dickens, for one, found it unsurpassed in “ugliness, horrible combination of color, hideous motion, and general failure”, and the overladen vehicle has come to symbolise pretty much everything that was wrong with 19th century historicism.
If one looks at the funeral car less as an independent object and more as a media event, however, the picture changes slightly. As Peter Sinnema and others have shown, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral elicited enormous interest in the press. The Illustrated London News, for instance, published page upon page on the Duke and his legendary victories, depicting Wellington as a Roman emperor. The design of the funeral car was shaped by this coverage, pandering explicitly to the Roman imperial iconography evoked by the press and construing Wellington’s funeral as the triumphal march of a modern-day Caesar. Wellington’s funeral car was conceived, executed, celebrated, and finally dismissed, in print, making it a superb case for The Printed & the Built project.
Mari Hvattum spoke on the funeral car at the conference Architecture and the Globalization of Knowledge in the 19th Century: Gottfried Semper and the Discipline of Architectural History, taking place at the University of Mendrisio, Switzerland, 2-3 June 2015. Organised by Sonja Hildebrand, Michael Gnehm and Philip Ursprung, the conference gathered Semper scholars from Europe and the United States to discuss the cosmopolitan architectural culture of the 19th century.