William Morris

Westminster Abbey

We feel ourselves compelled to call the attention of the public to the present condition and immediate prospects of the Church of St. Peter at Westminster: and this seems to us to be all the more necessary, because the public have scarcely understood the really important considerations which should be kept in mind in dealing with this piece of national property. The idea that is current in most people's minds seems to be that, apart from its function as a place of worship, it is to be used in some way or other as a kind of registration office for the names of men whom the present generation considers eminent in various capacities: the method of so registering them being the placing of a monument to their honour in the church and sometimes burying their corpses beneath the pavement. That this strange notion, which seems to have first taken root about the end of the seventeenth century, and was in full vigour all through the eighteenth and the earlier part of this century, is still alive in most men's minds, is clear from this fact, that now, when even the Dean and Chapter of Westminster have declared that burials in the Abbey must cease, and when it is clear to the most casual observer that the Church is crowded to absurdity with specimens of the gravestone-cutter's art, the public still think that the corpses of notorieties should be buried and their memories noted, if not in the Abbey, yet at any rate in some building contiguous to it, which is, if possible, to make a pretence of being part of it. The result of this feeling in the public has been that more than one scheme has been elaborated for providing space for this registration of notables in connection with the Abbey; of which it may be said that the best of them seemed likely to do not much harm to the remains of the ancient Abbey outside the Church, and that the worst intended the actual destruction of part of the Church itself by pulling down the wall of the north aisle in order to foist a nineteenth-century imitation of thirteenth-century architecture on to us as a part of the ancient building.

Moreover, it must be said that the ordinary visitor to the Abbey goes there not to see the Church, but the monuments of all kinds that it contains, and the Dean and Chapter understand this so well, that while they throw obstacles in the way of those who want to study the architecture, they arrange for the following the round of the monuments, mostly in the company of a showman after the fashion of Mrs. Jarley.

It must be said furthermore that the building suffers from the neglect of the most ordinary measures for keeping it clean and neat, and though it is true that it is difficult to struggle with London filth, yet its worst evils might at least be minimized. If the revenues of the Chapter are insufficient for dealing with this disadvantage, a public subscription might be opened for the purpose.

We fear, therefore, that in following out this curious superstition of the last two centuries, that it is necessary that Westminster Abbey should serve the purpose of a "National Valhalla," the public have neglected all other uses to which this building might serve, except that of a place for the decent celebration of the services of the Church of England; and that they are careless of what damage the Church may suffer, so long as it fulfils these two offices. But this carelessness, as a matter of course, extends to the injury which Westminster Abbey may receive at the hands of those who do see another use for it, viz., the literal reconstruction of lost or damaged features of the architecture of its earlier life - the "restoration," as it has been called, of the art of a period very different from ours.

Externally at least, this great Church has, for one reason or another, suffered more from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than most others of its size and dignity: being situated in the centre of government of this country, it has not enjoyed the advantages of boorish neglect which have left so much of interest in medieval buildings in remoter parts of the country. Every generation, after the decay of living organic art, has added its quota to the degradation of the building. Setting aside the destruction of furniture and decorations which as a matter of course took place under the two Puritan upheavals, and which was not so complete here as in some churches, the repairs or renewals done at different periods before our own, by men who had no sympathy with the original work, have been sufficiently disastrous to the exterior. The heavy hand of the academical classical architect has been more or less all over the building outside. The north transept, which in the time of Hollar, if one may judge from his curious nondescript engraving, was in a genuine condition, though possibly needing repair greatly, was reduced to the due commonplace ugliness which was then thought to be impressively respectable; the western towers omitted by the medieval buildings were supplied in the same style, having been probably designed by Wren and carried out by Hawksmoor, and remain in good condition, as monuments of the incapacity of seventeenth and eighteenth-century architects to understand the work of their forefathers; and perhaps one might say that they furnish a wholesome lesson to future ages not to attempt the imitation of a past epoch of art. If the architect or architects of these towers had left the Gothic alone and had built the new towers in the queer style of driven-into-a-corner Classic, which is that of the City church towers of or about that date, they certainly would not have jarred our sense of congruity so much as the quasi-Gothic existing ones do, and also, which is a great point, they would not have been so ugly. Wren's "restoration" of the south clerestory also was to be seen a year or two ago; this had to do with the ornamental features of the windows, which were reduced to the Bible and Prayer-book style of the period, but left the main surface of the walling alone.

The beginning of the nineteenth century saw an important degradation, in the rebuilding of the exterior of Henry VII's Chapel by Wyatt - the type of the architects of the first period of Gothic knowledge, who were far more destructive than those of Gothic "ignorance," and moreover had no style of their own, and gave us examples of the very extreme of academical lifelessness. Mr. Wyatt managed to take all the romance out of the exterior of this most romantic work of the late Middle Ages, and has left us little more than a caput mortuum, an office study of the exterior of the Chapel.

Blore began in 1809 the recasing of the north aisle of the Church, a work which was finished by Gilbert Scott: the two between them completely destroying all trace of the handiwork of the medieval masons in this part of the Church.

All these degradations belong to the time before the genuine "restoration" mania fell upon Westminster Abbey; they are well meant, ill-conceived, and disastrous pieces of repair of various degrees of stupidity, culminating in the last mentioned wholesale destruction of the thirteenth-century masons' work.

Sir Gilbert (then Mr.) Scott was appointed architect of the Abbey in 1849, by which time the second period of architectural Gothic "knowledge" had arrived. He "carefully restored" the Chapter House, that is, he made it (we are speaking of the exterior now) a modern building, imitating with about as much success as is possible in such cases the work of the thirteenth century. It has no longer any claim to be considered a work of art; it is the architect'sarchitecture, the work of the office, in which the executants are in no degree taken into council.

The work of "restoring" the exterior of the Church was carried on by Mr. Pearson. His work on the south side of the Church is now pretty much complete, and is of the same quality as Sir Gilbert Scott's. But not satisfied with the eighteenth-century transmogrification of the north transept (who could be?) and driven by the necessity of making some structural repairs, he carried on the idea of making a conjectural restoration of the north transept, which was begun by Sir Gilbert Scott. This work has now been accomplished, and he who runs may read.

The result is most unsatisfactory. Admitting that the eighteenth-century work was in no way good as an independent work of architecture, it was nevertheless done by men who put some of their own thought into it, poor as that was; moreover, they had not learned how to forge thirteenth-century architecture, and they had retained the outline of the old work, so that between what the eighteenth century left and what is produced, it was of some historical value at least. Its artistic value chiefly lay in the fact, that owing to the action of wind and weather, the surface of it was not unpleasant; and altogether it was so little distracting, that it was no bad preparation to the visitor for the solemn beauty of the interior of the Church.

The work that has taken its place is, as it was bound to be, with such ideas leading its architects, another example of the dead-alive office work of the modern restoring architect, overflowing with surface knowledge of the medieval work in every detail, but devoid of historic sympathy and true historical knowledge, and with no other aim in view than imitating the inimitable. But this example of the error is made more palpable and absurd by the fact that it is an imitation of very ornate thirteenth-century work, including abundance of figure sculpture. Now we must remind our readers that the free carved ornament of the Middle Ages (whether of figures or not) was the handiwork of artists, and whatever their shortcomings might have been, they were expected to, and did express their own conceptions with their own hands; they were undoubtedly the best artists of their time for the work in hand; they belonged to no inferior rank of artists, that is, but were the leaders of their art; there were no artists above them, doing work more intellectual and educated. Their productions, therefore, were always genuine works of art, whatever their relative merits might be.

Nor is that all; they were working under the full influence of traditions unbroken since the very beginnings of art on this planet; they were entirely unable to feign themselves other than they were, artists of their own day: any real artist of the present time will at once be able to see what an advantage this was to them; that the bond of tradition was so far from being a fetter, that it left them truly free to give form to their thought according to their own wishes. Their works still speak for them, and show us what a great body of artists of the highest skill and sense of beauty was at work amidst the scanty populations of medieval Europe.

It is clear then that the medieval architect, master builder, abbot, or whoever else planned the building, could never have been at a serious loss for skilful men to decorate his building according to the fashion of the time. Let us turn the page and see how it stands with us now in this matter. There are undoubtedly many clever sculptors (or modellers, rather, for they do not as a rule carve their own work) in civilized countries; but the capacity for designingand executing the subsidiary forms of carved ornament has completely departed from those countries on the one hand, while on the other, the sculptors aforesaid are divorced from architectural or ornamental work, and most of them would consider themselves treated with less than due consideration if they were asked to undertake it. The few instances in which they have timidly attempted to get into some relation with architecture have had such poor results as clearly to show how difficult it is for them to produce any work which is not merely isolated and unornamental.

This is so obvious to the architects in need of carved work for their imitative restorations that they never even attempt to employ artists on their work; but a supply has sprung up to meet the demand, and workmen are employed to produce imitative Gothic sculpture in which they have no interest, and of the spirit of whose prototypes they have no understanding; the tangible result of this being what is called ecclesiastical sculpture, so utterly without life or interest that nobody who passes under the portal of the church on which it is plastered, treats it as a work of art any more than he does the clergyman's surplice within the building.

The restoring architect therefore is in this dilemma, that what there is of skilful and original sculpture is not fit for his purpose, and will not make ornament; and that what he can have, and which professes to be ornament, has no artistic value. What is to be done in such a case? The common-sense view of it would be that he had better forgo the ornament. But here he is met by the difficulty that he has set out to make a scientific imitation of, say, a French portal of the thirteenth century, and such portals always had sculpture of such and such subjects on them, so that his restoration will not be thorough unless he has the due amount of quasi-ornament to show. Therefore in the teeth of reason and logic he is compelled to accept the makeshift for the real thing, and as a consequence to leave his work bedizened rather than ornamented.

That this has necessarily been the case with the new front of the north transept at Westminster must be obvious to any one who understands art; and in spite of all the knowledge and skill of the architects it could not have been otherwise, considering the point they started from. If any such person doubts this, let him compare the new imagery of the porches with the angels high up in the transept within; or let him look at any piece of genuine carving there and compare it with the subsidiary work in the porch; and he will surely see in every line of the first the vigour and pleasure of the hand of the workman, and in the other a joyless putty-like imitation that had better have been a plaster cast.

To sum up then the case of the outside of Westminster Abbey: a long series of blunders of various kinds, all based on a false estimate of the true value of the building, have damaged it so vitally, that scarcely any of its original surface remains, and we have nothing left us but a mere outline, a ghost, so to say, of what it was. A great misfortune truly, and an irreparable one. What else is left us of the Abbey Church that is still so valuable that we are in a trouble of anxiety lest this also should be taken away from us?

In a few words the interior of the Church is left to us; and this, while the exterior has suffered so grievously as to have been all but entirely destroyed, has been less damaged than many other great churches. In fact, were it not for the result of the mania for monuments, that as aforesaid has been so recklessly indulged in up to the present moment, the interior of the Abbey Church would be comparatively in a very good condition, and would leave little to be desired save the clearing away of the imitative and unoriginal stained glass which hasgot into the windows at various times, to the great damage of the effect of the church. As to the monuments once more, the burden of their ugliness must be endured, at any rate until the folly of restoration has died out. For the greater part of them have been built into the fabric, and their removal would leave gaps, not so unsightly indeed as these stupid masses of marble, but tempting to the restorer, who would not be contented with merely patching them decently, but would make them excuses for further introduction of modern work. In short, disastrous and disgraceful as these pieces of undertaker's upholstery are, and though they make us a laughing-stock among nations for our folly in having permitted them to blemish the Church, they protect us from the still greater disaster of the platitudinizing of the whole interior by a "thorough restoration."

It is the rumour of the contemplation of this "thorough restoration" which makes this memorandum of our Society necessary, and we shall have presently to recur to it: but we must first write a few words of recapitulation and of definite explanation of the position of our Society in regard to this matter.

We have stated that amidst the neglect of the general public which Westminster Abbey lies under, there are two views taken of it. The first, that it is a convenient receptacle for the monuments of the notorieties that rise up, wax, wane, and set from time to time.

The second, that it is a good piece for the exercise and exhibition of the skill of the modern architect, and his scientific knowledge of the methods of design and building of the Middle Ages, which is so complete that it enables him to surmount at one stride the difficulties created by the long lapse of years, and the complete change in ideas and the structure of society, which it has brought about: that in short, Westminster Abbey can be renewed in our time, and that, being renewed, it will be the same Westminster Abbey which the eyes of Chaucer beheld when he was yet in the flesh. Those we say are two views: is there no third? Yes, there is the view of this Society, which can be stated easily and shortly. It is this: Westminster Abbey in spite of all injuries is a great work of art, valuable to all succeeding generations as long as it holds together; and it can by patience, pains and good judgment be held together for an indefinite time. Moreover the art of it is inextricably inter-woven with the history which has in fact produced it. It may seem stranger to some that whereas we can give some distinguished name as the author of almost every injury it has received, the authors of this great epic itself have left no names behind them. For indeed it is the work of no one man, but of the people of south-east England, working in the manner which the traditions of the ages forced upon them. And that is the reason why we must accept as irreparable those injuries which it has received, and which we lament so much. It was the work of the inseparable will of a body of men, who worked as they lived, because they could do no otherwise, and unless you can bring those men back from the dead, you cannot "restore" one verse of their epic. Rewrite the lost trilogies of Aeschylus, put a beginning and end to the "Fight at Finsbury," finish the Squire's tale for Chaucer, even if you cannot

"call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold,"

and if you can succeed in that, you may then "restore" Westminster Abbey.

But though you cannot restore it, you can preserve it. And we must tell you that to do lessthan this is to involve yourselves in a great national stupidity, a national crime in fact. For this at least you can do, whatever the condition of the arts among us may be. Care and commonsense will enable you to do that without the expenditure of any great faculty for the production of art.

Lastly, if we are asked if it be worth while to take this trouble, and what is the importance of this piece of architecture, as architecture, or what rank Westminster Abbey takes as a work of art, we can only say, that apart from all the glamour which history and tradition have cast over it, it is a building second to none amongst all the marvels of architectural beauty produced by the Middle Ages. Like all such buildings, its beauty is convincing, and sets criticism aside. And the man who is not moved by it must have resigned the human faculty of letting his eyes convey ideas to his brain.

We must now mention the rumour of "restoration" of the interior which has alarmed us. Something is certainly in contemplation: but what it is, whether it be needful repair or destructive restoration, we cannot tell you. And this for a very definite reason. Having, in common with the rest of the public, heard the rumour, we thought that we were bound by our position before the public to refuse to accept mere hearsay, and to obtain definite, detailed, reliable information from the delegated guardians of the Abbey, the Dean and Chapter. We wrote to that body, then, simply as a part of the public that wished for information, and we were met by a refusal to give any information - we must suppose, because the Dean and Chapter misunderstood us, and thought we considered them responsible to us, and not to the public at large, as we certainly do consider them. We can only express a hope that they will tell the public what they intend doing with what is really, if not legally, a piece of national property, as speedily and as directly as they can.

It is in this hope that we have delayed calling public attention to the matter for so long; but we feel that it will not admit of indefinite delay, and accordingly put our views before the public.

If we are asked what should be done, our reply is very simple. We believe that one architect, however distinguished and learned, is too heavily burdened by having the sole charge of the Abbey in his hands. We think that a consultation should be called of the best practical architects, builders, and engineers, and that they should report as to the stability of the fabric and what means should be taken to render it thoroughly secure; and, a satisfactory scheme having been agreed on, funds should be obtained from Parliament, or if that were not possible, by subscription from the public at large, for carrying it out without delay. But we are also sure that such a scheme should disclaim most emphatically any intention of meddling with the ornamental features of the building.

The structural stability having been secured, the Abbey should be kept clean, and otherwise not be touched at all. That is the only thing to do, and there is no second course which would not lead to fresh disaster. Let bygones be bygones, but do not let us enter on a second series of alterations and improvements which will deprive us at last of all that is now left us of our most beautiful building.

June 1893.