William Morris

The Royal Tombs in Westminster Abbey

For some time past there have been rumours afloat that it was intended to `restore' the Royal tombs in Westminster Abbey. These seem traceable to the fact that the President of the Society of Antiquaries had had his attention called to the alleged bad condition of the monuments. The result of this has been that Mr J. T. Micklethwaite, whose knowledge both of the past and the present of the Abbey probably surpasses that of any other person now living, was commissioned to report on the state of the Royal monuments to the executive committee of the Society of Antiquaries. His report disposes of the alarmist view that there is any serious deterioration going on in these monuments. They have indeed suffered from the effects of violence that took place during the civil and ecclesiastical strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and they are worn by time and London filth; but the Dean and Chapter cannot justly be blamed for any neglect of them, as they have done what they could to keep them in a condition at once sound and genuine.

It is possible, however, that the rumour above mentioned may lead to a cry for their `restoration,' in the technical sense of the word. I ask permission, therefore, to address a word or two, though your columns, to those who are not contented to see these invaluable records of severalcenturies of our history, these beautiful examples of a past art, left in a sound and genuine condition.

I fear there are those who wish to change the present appearance of these monuments, who believe that it is possible to bring them back to their original splendour. They would, no doubt, replace the vanished mosaic in the twisted columns of the Confessor's shrine, replace the partly perished marble by brand-new slabs; do the same by the Purbeck marble of Queen Eleanor's tomb, and polish the new work till it shone like glass (for such things have been done elsewhere); make new lions for Edward III's feet to rest on; regild Richard II, and re-chase the crowned and chained hart and the sunburst which makes such a beautiful pattern on his robe, and (why not when once started on such a road?) cover the wooden core of Henry V with new metal, and make a new head for him at a guess. It is a matter of course that all the architectural details of canopies and subsidiary figures would be done again, in imitation or guess-work of what yet remains. All this could be done by means of the expenditure of money, and it will be done if the `restorers' have their way; for they will not stop short of it. And what would be the result of it? We should have a set of models more or less ingeniously got together, partly by servile and inartistic imitation, partly by guess-work from the originals. Such models might, indeed, be made for exhibition in some popular show, some Old Westminster yet to be produced, and might amuse a good many people for a time, and they would be innocent enough if the originals were left in their integrity. But that is not the possible proposition; the `restorers' would try their experiments on the very historical records and works of art themselves; which means, in plain words, that before `restoring' them they would have to destroy them. The recordof our remembered history embodied in them would be gone; almost more serious still, the unremembered history, wrought into them by the hands of the craftsmen of bygone times, would be gone also. And to what purpose? To foist a patch of bright, now work, a futile academical study at best, amidst the loveliness of the most beautiful building in Europe.

I cannot and do not believe that the Dean and Chapter would consent to the perpetuation of such a monstrosity, but I feel that it is well to be in time in such matters and to protest before any considerable number of persons should get themselves committed to a scheme, the carrying out of which would be nothing short of a national disaster.

Letter to the Times, 1 June 1895.