Restoration of Tewkesbury Minster

By William Morris

I am not quite sure that I should wish to see Tewkesbury Minster `replaced in its former state,' or one of its many `former states'; but, as it is clearly impossible, when one comes to think of it, for ourselves or our buildings to live again either in the fifteenth century or the twelfth, it is hardly worth while to say much on this merely hypothetical matter of taste. On the other hand, I am sure that I do not wish the Minster to look like a modern building, and I think Sir Edmund Lechmere also would disclaim any such wish, though doubtless many others would not; and I assert that the more money is spent in altering its `present state' in the year 1877 and onwards, the more modern it will look. In truth, I am afraid that it will look much more modern than Sir Edmund Lechmere hopes; for I am older in restorations that he seems to be, and pretty well know the value of assurances of strictcare and such-like in restorations. They are always made even in the worst cases, and never kept even in the best; as, indeed, they cannot possibly be. Everybody who has had to do with old buildings knows what a perilous process is that business of stripping, so naively alluded to by Sir Edmund Lechmere, and how comprehensive a phrase `comparatively recent' can be made, nay, must be made very often when alterations once begin in an old building.

After all, the issue is narrow between Sir Edmund Lechmere and the restorers, and myself and the anti-restorers. Neither side wants a building to lose its ancient character; only the restorers think it will look even more ancient if it be worked all over under the `care' of Sir Gilbert Scott to-day - which opinion we cannot admit. The issue being thus narrow, and the consequence of error so serious to lovers of art, I think it is but reasonable for the minority, to which I belong, to appeal to the public to wait. This is all the more reasonable, since if we are wrong no harm will be done. The unrestored ancient buildings are wronging no one in Church or State, as they are now; and it is but waiting a few years, and they can be restored then. Whereas if the restorers are wrong and have their way, they will hopelessly destroy all that is left us of our ancient buildings.

Prudence, we submit, should enlist the public on our side, for architecture is at present in a wholly experimental condition, as I suppose I need scarcely call on London streets to witness; and yet, such is the headlong rashness of our architects, that they have for the last thirty years made the priceless relics of medieval art and history mere blocks for their experiments; experiments which some of them must regret heartily, and sorely wish to `restore.'

In my belief there is no remedy for the spreading ofthis disease but for the public to make up its mind to put up with `comparatively recent' incongruities in old churches and other public buildings, and to be content with keeping them weather-tight; and if they have any doubts about the stability of the fabric, to call in an engineer to see to it, and let iron ties, and the like, do what they can. For my part, I cannot help thinking that they will soon find it easy to bear the absence of stained glass, and shiny tiles, and varnished deal roofs, and all the various upholsteries with the help of which our architects and clergy have striven so hard to `replace' our ancient buildings in their `former state,' or, at any rate, in some `former state' imagined by themselves to be super-excellent.

Letter to Athenaeum, 7 April 1877.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology