William Morris

Mr. Shaw Lefevre's Monumental Chapel

I do not quite understand whether Mr Shaw Lefevre's scheme implies any meddling with either the Abbey Church, or the interesting remains of the ancient buildings near it; if it does, it cannot be too severely condemned; but your own article (of January 26th) on this subject gives a dangerous hint, which I hope will not be taken, for `beautifying, at a comparatively small expense, the cloisters which form part of the ancient chapel.' I must say that part of the `expense' would be the destruction of the cloisters themselves, and such an expense is not easily measured in money. As to the general question of monuments in Westminster Abbey, you say with truth that it is one of the most beautiful of ancient fanes. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that at the beginning of the sixteenth century it was the most beautiful of Gothic buildings. Everything which has been either taken away from or added to it since then has done more or less to destroy this beauty, until to-day the exterior no longer exists as a work of art, and even in the matchless interior we are forced, if we are to receive any impression of beauty from it, to abstract our thoughts from a mass of monuments which, even apart from their incongruity with the delicate loveliness of the ancient architecture, are for the most part the most hideous specimens of false art that can be found in the whole world; mere Cockney nightmares and aberrations of the human intellect. I do not think, Sir, that I am saying too much in asserting that this is generally acknowledged. For what has been done in the past I fear that there is no remedy possible; or at least only a very partial one; since most of these abortions have been built into the very structure of the Church. It is true that if we had any common sense we might at once set to work andremove whatever of these idiocies is removable without interfering with the structure; but with a sinking heart I must admit that we lack the due amount of common sense for that simple purging, that demonstration against a national disgrace. There remains, however, the future: surely, Sir, we might close Westminster Abbey once for all to any more memorials, whatever their form might be: it appears to me a poor reward for a man's past services to privilege him to share in the degradation of a true monument of bygone ages, a record of men who, to judge by the works which they left behind them, were not unworthy, though they have chanced to be nameless to us. If some evil fate does compel us to continue the series of conventional undertakers' lies, of which the above-mentioned brutalities, in all their loathsomeness, are but too fitting an expression, surely now that we have learned that if they are necessary they are still ugly, we need not defile a beautiful building with them. Therefore, Sir, I most cordially agree with your suggestion that St Paul's should be utilised for the stowage of such fatuities; and that all the more as it was clearly meant to fulfil that function. Also, properly speaking, it is a modern building, the product of an architect's office, a work conceived and carried out under much the same conditions as such a building would be now, and expressing much the same aspirations and ideas as ours. Whereas between us and the mournful but beautiful ruins of Westminster Abbey, once built by the hands of the people for the hearts of the people, lies a gulf wide, deep, unbridgeable, at least at present

Letter to the Daily News, 30 January 1889.