Listen to the Audio Guide and discover:
- What it was like in the Abbey when the only lighting was from the old gas chandeliers which gave off overpowering fumes
- When the Abbey finally converted to electricity but how this soon became outdated
- How the Abbey's lighting was transformed and modernised in the 1990s
- The challenges faced by the Lighting Designer and Lighting Engineer as the new lighting scheme needed to remain hidden so that it didn't detract from the Abbey's beauty
- How Mark Wood-Robinson, the Lighting Designer, took his inspiration for the new lighting scheme from the Abbey's 'nickname' of "The Lantern of the West"
If you look up towards the ceiling above the seating, you can see the red Victorian chandeliers. These chandeliers originally lit the Abbey using gas. They were designed by Francis Skidmore of Coventry and made from wrought iron. They were installed in the 1870s during the major restoration work undertaken by Sir Gilbert Scott. The chandeliers were only converted to electricity in 1979.
The gas lighting lit the Abbey poorly. What’s more, the fumes from the gas contributed to the discolouration of the Abbey’s stonework but also could have undesirable effects on visitors to the Abbey. Keith Gover was an eight-year old choir boy in 1942 when the Abbey was damaged during the Bath Blitz. In the Audio Guide, Keith remembers the old gas lighting and how the fumes could be overpowering…
Converting to electricty
In April 1945 an anonymous donor gave the gift of £1000 to the Abbey. The considerable sum would be worth £25,000 today. The Archdeacon at the time suggested that the money might be used after the war to provide electric lighting in the Abbey. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that the chandeliers were finally converted to electricity!
Transforming the Abbey's lighting in the 1990s
However the electric lighting system introduced in 1979 quickly became outmoded. One of the biggest problems was that it did not project light into the building well which made it very difficult for the congregation to read their Bibles and hymnbooks during services - something that is essential for the Abbey as there are usually five services every Sunday!
In 1990, as part of the Abbey 2000 project, the South West Electricity Board were approached by the Abbey to refurbish the lighting system and provide a new up-lighting for the Abbey that would illuminate it effectively. A number of up-lighters are positioned in the corners of the windowsills.
Mark Wood-Robinson was the Lighting Designer responsible for the new lighting scheme and Alan Casse was one of the lighting engineers who worked for the South West. You can hear from both of them in the Audio Guide about what it was like working on the project and the challenges they faced.
"The Lantern of the West"
Mark was inspired by the idea of the Abbey as “The Lantern of the West”. In the Audio Guide, he explains how he tried to design the new system so that the Abbey's stone ceiling (known as the 'fan vaulting' because its patterns are shaped like open fans) could be better appreciated.
This included installing new uplighters strategically positioned on the window sills, relighting the side aisles by modifying the chandeliers and incorporating special 'reflectors' in order to project the light upwards into the Abbey ceiling.
Tackling the many challenges
The new lighting system not only needed to improve the lighting in the Abbey but also had to be energy efficient. It was also important that the new lighting contributed to the safety, worship, and enhancement of the architectural qualities of the building - and didn't detract from it in any way.
Mark describes the shape of the lights and how he wanted the new uplighters to emphasise the beauty of the side aisles' stone ‘fan-vault’ ceiling, rather than make the lights themselves a feature of the space.
Safety was also an issue - especially as installing the new lighting involved having to fit the uplighters at a great height. Alan Casse, one of the lighting engineers who installed the uplighters, remembers that it was a scary business working high up on a ladder.
Highlighting the altar
Thanks to Mark’s improvement of the chandeliers, people can read Bibles and hymnbooks better when they come to worship in the Abbey. The important parts of church services take place at the altar. Mark designed new spot lighting to highlight the altar and this part of the church. The spot lights are located high up and so, as Mark explains, they had to be put in using scaffolding. However, when they needed to be adjusted it had to be done by climbing up a ladder!
Mark describes how he had to climb to adjust the lights, why they are there, and why they are so important for worship and services…
Out of sight
One of the aspects of the lighting that you won’t be able to see are the switches which control them. In your house you see the light switches on the walls and can turn them on and off. But in the Abbey they are out of sight. Another difference between the lights in your house and those in the Abbey are the speed at which they turn on.
The wiring for the lighting is another aspect of the lighting that is hidden. If you could see wires everywhere around the stonework it might distract you from the beauty and architectural features of the building. So the lighting engineers had to come up with ways to keep the wires out of sight. In the following clip, Alan Casse, one of the lighting engineers explains some of things they did to hide the wiring.
The completion of the new lighting scheme in 1993
The new lighting system included the uplighters in the clerestory windowsills and the side aisle windowsills, the improvements to the chandeliers above the central aisle, and the spotlighting of the East end around the altar. The installation of the new system was completed in 1993 and in the Audio Guide, Mark Wood-Robinson, the designer of the new lighting system, describes how he felt when it was complete.