Speech Seconding a Resolution Against Restoration

By William Morris

Everywhere I fancy it will be admitted that the study of history is a most important part of the cultivation of the present day; nor will many be found to deny that the architectural monuments of the past are a great help to that study; but perhaps not everybody understands how great a help they are, or how differently it would fare with the study of history, as it is now followed, if we lacked those monuments; for you must remember how different that modern historical research is to the chronicling, the story-telling of times past. The ancient chroniclers were laborious and conscientious men who loved their subject, and often dealt with it most dramatically and forcibly; all honour to their memory: doubtless the best modern historians honour them most. But so unbroken in those days was the chain that bound men to the past, so little possible it seemed to them that it could be broken, that neither the chroniclers nor their audience could conceive of their forefathers being different from them in any way. `Such and such things happened then, such and such happen now, but men's thoughts and aspirations are the same now as then, and the ways of life that followed from those thoughts must have been the same': that is what they deemed of it unconsciously; and much of the life and dramatic truth of their writing and their art springs from that blindness, which I think was happy both for them to have and for us to reap the advantage of, which advantage, in short, is an accurate knowledge of the times these men lived in, their thoughts, their hopes, their ways of life: for side by side with the simplicity of the writer that of the artist was at work also,to show us at every turn what the writer meant; nay, to give us insight into much that the historian never thought of putting into words, being a cultivated man writing for great and lettered persons, while the artist was, in those days, any man who could handle a tool - who could not disguise himself even if he would, since the art of imitation had not yet been invented - so that it comes to this, that the innate and typical ideas of the ordinary medieval Englishman are preserved to us in the works of art of his time: his own ideas, mind, not those of other men or books, but his own, uninfluenced except by the general tendencies of the age. Must not this be a great part of history? Moreover, we of the present day can understand them just as they are: that is our birthright, our heritage; for in other days it was not so: men who saw the work wrought by their forefathers were compelled to translate it, as it were, before they could notice it: but we, so much has history changed from what it was, can understand these visible words of those who have gone before us, and by means of them enter into their lives. And I say this is the heritage they have left us, the fruit of their toil and their pleasure, the fruit of their unblamable and imaginative ignorance - simplicity, may I call it.

Now this is one side of the value of the works we are met together to guard both from thoughtlessness and sordid destruction, and from rash falsification. I think you will resolve that the cause is a worthy one. For surely one of the characteristics of the present age is its tendency to retrospection; nor can I think it a weak or a foolish one: I will be bold to say that many of the best men among us look back much to the past, not with idle regret, but with humility, hope, and courage; not in striving to bring the dead to life again, but to enrich the present and the future: I may well usethe word enrich, for if we of the present are not the more careful, the future will on some sides be but poor, I fear. Meantime, consider how large a part of all our lives this real and living history forms: the history whose life would starve and fade if it lacked such food as our old buildings can give it. I believe even many of those who are wholly unconscious of it are, nevertheless, deeply influenced by it; that if all that influence were suddenly taken from them, they would feel some blank and barren loss had befallen them: and if this is so now, surely it will be much more so as education spreads; surely in days to come people will feel ashamed of us, that we took so little trouble to guard the things they have heard told of as so precious; that we could not exercise something more of patience and forethought in arranging the relative claims of what our own lives compelled us to make for our immediate use, and what our honour and gratitude bade us hand down from our fathers to our children. For is a thing is seriously worth having, it is worth making some sacrifice to keep; nay, some sacrifice must be made, for certainly all possessions involve responsibility and trouble, yet people do not usually shrink from attaining them: and the old buildings that we love, with all the history that goes with them, are no worse in this respect than other property. These monuments, so precious a possession of this country, do bear with them a certain responsibility: we must either, as before said, deal with them carefully and patiently, or neglect the duty which cultivation and civilization has imposed upon us as the descendants of those who built them: it is hard if we grudge this care to these tokens of the life and energy from which all our prosperity and hope have come. Much oftener than not, when such buildings have been destroyed, the sacrifice of apparent and immediate convenience involved in keeping them standingwould have been but small: but for my part I am not so anxious for the reputation of a practical man as to shrink from declaring that, in my opinion, great sacrifices of apparent and immediate convenience should have been made in their behalf; for I cannot think that England, with all her wealth, is rich enough to lose them, since in very truth all her wealth tenfold could not buy the making of one of them.

But also if they are worth keeping and worth making some sacrifice to keep, they must be worth the exercise of some patience also in dealing with their present condition, or else we shall advantage little that posterity, the dread of whose blame I was putting before you: for if we hand our monuments down to them, pretending to be what they are not, we shall both puzzle and discourage them. What will they say, for instance, to the carving of the restored North Porch of Westminster Abbey? What credulous empty-heads they will think us, who have praised the art of the thirteenth century to them. `What!' they will say, `this thin starved work, these smooth, tame, rubbed-down pieces of stone that are like nothing that is or could be in nature, that are neither useful, beautiful, nor suggestive, is this the handiwork of the thirteenth century, of those men of eager hearts and skilful hands, the inheritors of long unbroken ages of skill and love of beauty? Is that all they could do? we can learn nothing from them.' Indeed I fear that if we do not bestir ourselves, such examples as these will be all they will have to judge from; and I say in that case we of this antiquarian age, not those of the past times of destruction, will be the guilty parties. It does indeed seem strange to me people cannot see how the times have changed, that they should insist on these lifeless pieces of reproduction. The workman of to-day is not an artist as his forefather was; it is impossible, under hiscircumstances, that he could translate the work of the ancient handicraftsman; and sure I am that if he were artist enough to be able to do so, he would refuse to try it. I say the workman of to-day is no artist; it is the hope of my life that this may one day be changed; that popular art may grow again in our midst; that we may have an architectural style, the growth of its own times, but connected with all history. Now when that time has come we shall be able to judge, perhaps, as to the best way of dealing with our ancient monuments: now I call a truce with the restorers, and ask them, would it not be the part of prudent and patient men to wait till that time is come before the decision is made; meantime carefully repairing these treasures of art and keeping them weather-tight, which if the guardians of buildings had steadily done heretofore would have prevented all thought of restoration. It is never too late to restore a building; nay, it can be pulled down and rebuilt at any time; but most restorations have made it overlate to look for history or art in the buildings that have undergone them. As for that decision of the future times of perfect and living art, I am not afraid of it. When people shall have so learned art that they easily and habitually practise it, they will have learned many other things besides. I believe that then the little grey weather-beaten building, built by ignorant men, torn by violent ones, patched by blunderers, that has outlived so many hopes and fears of mankind, and yet looks friendly and familiar to them - I believe that this relic of past times will be no offence to the beauty and majesty of their streets. I believe they will feel no call to raise it to the level of their own perfection, or to strip it of all the fruit of its old age, and make it as it first was -clear and beautiful, without a history or a blemish. Rather I believe they will honour it the more for the many minds and hands of men that have dealt with it,and they will religiously guard it as a holy symbol of all the triumphs and tribulations of art: of art, the constant companion and expression of the life and aspirations of the world.

Bibliographical Note


Speech Seconding a Resolution Against Restoration (1879).


1. 28 June 1879: Before SPAB at the Annual Meeting held at the Willis Rooms, King Street, St. James's, London. The Hon Percy Wyndham, M.P., was the chairman.


1. [Untitled] in Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The Second Annual Meeting of the Society, (London 1879), pp. 30-36.

2. As `Address at the Second Annual Meeting, 28 June, 1879', in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1936), Vol. I, pp. 119-24.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology