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Architecture of the Senate: Parliament and Crown meet in the Senate foyer
August 18, 2017

Anyone visiting the chamber where the upper house of Canada’s Parliament sits will pass through the Senate foyer. The ceremonial entrance to the Red Chamber — with its pointed arches, soaring columns and stained-glass windows — is spectacular but often overlooked. This is a shame since the hall is a masterpiece of early 20th-century architecture and a treasure trove of painting and sculpture.

This portrait head of Queen Elizabeth II took its place among five other sculptures of her predecessors in 2010.

As grand as the portico of any cathedral, the structure is less than a century old. It was erected when Centre Block was rebuilt after a 1916 fire razed the original 19th-century building. Although reconstruction was largely complete by 1927, carving in the foyer was not undertaken until the late 1950s.

Like the rest of Centre Block, the Senate foyer was built in the Gothic Revival style, a style indelibly associated with an English parliamentary tradition dating to the 13th century. Symbolically, the foyer highlights the partnership between Parliament and Crown, since the Senate is where the sovereign or her representative, the governor general, addresses the combined members of both houses at the beginning of each session of Parliament.

Six carved portraits of Canada’s sovereigns since Confederation— from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II — adorn the columns immediately in front of the Senate chamber entrance. Elizabeth’s was unveiled in 2010.

The oldest work of art in the foyer is the portrait of George III (1738-1820) painted by Joshua Reynolds, the most sought-after portraitist in Britain in the late 1700s. Nearby hangs Robert Swain’s portrait of King George VI. It depicts a quietly dignified king who overcame a debilitating stutter to rally his nation during the Second World War. This personal struggle was dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie, The King’s Speech.

The core of this collection of royals is the full-length state portrait of Queen Victoria, the Queen of Canada at the time of Confederation. It was saved from the 1916 fire by being sliced out of its frame and hurriedly bundled out of the building.    

The sculpted relief near the ceiling of the Senate foyer contains French and English royal symbols, representations of Huron and Iroquois first peoples, a Viking and significant figures from Canada’s history. Look just below the frieze; six mysterious heads gaze solemnly across the colonnade. Two of them are traditional helmeted knights but four are the sculptors themselves, who took the liberty of an unsupervised overnight shift to immortalize themselves in stone.

Explore the foyer — and the rest of the Senate — in detail by taking the Senate Virtual Tour.

This window commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, marking her 60 years on the throne. It juxtaposes her likeness with that of her great great grandmother, Queen Victoria, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

George III’s portrait hangs on the south wall of the foyer. George had a combative relationship with his official portraitist, Joshua Reynolds. Despite their personal differences, Reynolds depicted the King with the grandeur and bearing of an ideal Enlightenment monarch.

The state portrait of Queen Victoria was acquired in 1849 to hang in Montreal’s Bonsecours Market, which briefly housed the Parliament of the Province of Canada. The painting escaped four fires before coming to hang in the Senate foyer.

This 1957 portrait by Lilias Torrance Newton of the 31-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, painted five years after the beginning of her reign, is one of two original paintings in the foyer and the only one by a Canadian artist.

The foyer's stained-glass ceiling features symbols of the European cultures that contributed to Canada’s founding: the Irish shamrock, the French fleur-de-lis, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh dragon and the English lion.

The foyer’s stained-glass ceiling incorporates the names of all the speakers of the Senate until 1920. A single pane with a cryptic message represents Senate speakers to come. It is not clear whether the misspelling (it should be <em>quelqu’un</em>) is intentional.

A self-portrait of one of the sculptors who worked on the Senate foyer in the 1950s stares down from high above.

Robert Swain’s portrait of King George VI depicts a quietly dignified king who presided over the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations as well as Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1949.