William Morris

Peterborough Cathedral I.

A note published from a correspondent about Peterborough Cathedral is somewhat alarming. Will you allow me a few words on this subject? As to what has been done at Peterborough I will not say much; some of us thought that when the necessary rebuilding of the arches of the crossing took place, it might have been possible to save the tower from rebuilding; but it was at any rate highly creditable to the good sense of the Chapter that they refused to allow the church to be disfigured with an experimental modern Norman tower, especially as much pressure was put upon them in favour of that absurdity. Let us hope that they will understand their responsibilities in the future as well as they did on that occasion. For it seems that not only are we threatened with a bedizening of the cathedral with modern ecclesiasticupholstery of various kinds, but that also the structure of the building is to be dealt with. This latter work may be necessary; and in that case, if rightly done, though we must regret the necessity, we at least may preserve something of the old building; but it may be wrongly done, and in that case the old building is destroyed.

Now, is it worth saving? If not, let us say so at once, and when it becomes dangerous pull it down without more words. But there are not many people, I imagine, who would like to confess that they are prepared to do this. What they really are prepared to do, I fear, is to allow a sham to take the place of the genuine work, and this at a vast expense of labour and also of flattery and humbug all round. Now, I assert both that Peterborough Cathedral is worth saving, and that it can be saved. But it will not be saved unless the public watches it carefully; for it is much easier, and to a commonplace and unenthusiastic mind much pleasanter, to pull an old building down and put up a sham in its place than to expend the constant trouble, ingenuity, and patience requisite to keep it in a genuine and sound condition.

Let me remind your readers that Peterborough Cathedral is a Norman church (with a few later additions), entered through a magnificent portico or west front of Early Pointed work, which front is unique in this country, a miracle of grace and beauty. This front, your correspondent says, is to be `repaired.' But it does not need repair in the ordinary sense of the word: to the eye of the passer-by it is in excellent repair. There is, however, a rumour that it is structurally unsound; which may be true, since something or other (probably the draining of the fen) has damaged the foundations of the church. If it is true, a remedy ought to be sought and found at once; if it is not, the front ought not to be touched. Now, in the first place, before we give our money to the restoration committee, who is to assure us of the truth as to the stability of this great work of art? The architect of the cathedral, aided by his very able clerk of the works? That is not enough. The matter is too important to be left to the judgement of one man. There should be a jury called (to which the architect of the cathedral should be ineligible) comprising the men best skilled in construction: engineers as well as architects, foreigners as well as British: who should give a report on the matter to the public. That report being made, if the decision were unfavourable, the question would then be, How can it be saved? But it would have to be borne in mind that the thing to avoid is rebuilding; if it were rebuilt it would not be really and wholly saved. For myself, I am quite sure that it could be saved (supposing it unsound) without rebuilding.

This, it seems to me, is at least the kind of way in which the question should be treated. I am aware that it would cost a great deal in trouble, anxiety, and labour; but I for one think that the building would be worth all that; and as for those who do not think it would be worth the trouble to preserve the church, I call upon them to state this plainly and then to stand aside and let the work be done by those who really care about the ancient art of the country. I also call upon the public generally not to give another penny to the restoration fund until they are quite sure that it will be used for the preservation of the actual building, and not for pulling it down and putting a modern substitute in its place.

Letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, 10 September 1889.