It is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours.... It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, never can be recalled. — John Ruskin, "The Lamp of Memory" (1849)

Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't. — Philip Larkin, "Church Going" (1955)

[Click on thumbnails for larger images]

Most of the churches and cathedrals in British cities, towns and villages today were either built or restored by Victorian architects, in an age of Evangelical and Catholic revival on the one hand, and (in architecture) Gothic revival on the other. By mid-century, the Methodists too were building many new chapels in the Gothic style. Along with the , Augustus Welby Pugin's example and writings, such as his True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843), opened the way for many of the important architects of the time to spend their energies on church building. Notable among these were George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and to a lesser extent his former pupil George Edmund Street (1824-1881). They also took on commissions for preserving existing cathedrals and churches throughout the country. Towers were strengthened, naves underpinned, roofs replaced and (more problematically) new fronts, transepts and chapels, ceilings, flooring, screens and other church furniture installed inside.

John Ruskin's disapproval of such work is well known. He considered it an interference with the visions of past craftsmen, and a corruption of their original visions for their projects. As such, surely it went against the moral principles and purpose of architecture on which Pugin had insisted? Most famously, Ruskin's antagonism towards it resulted in his declining the gold medal of RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) because its members were now "engaged in work — such as the restoration of ancient buildings — in which he had no sympathy" (Collingwood, Book IV, Ch. 3: 237). Ruskin was as influential in his own way as Pugin had been, and among those he influenced was William Morris, who considered Scott himself little short of a vandal when it came to his work on the fabric of old churches. What became known as the "Anti-Scrape" protest movement, from its opposition to scraping the plaster off old walls, led directly to the foundation by William Morris and Philip Webb in 1877 of the SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings).

St Albans St Albans

Left: St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church. Right: Remains of the Roman theatre.

The restoration of St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church in Hertfordshire became something of a cause célèbre for the SPAB. St Albans, as it is properly known (without an apostrophe), has its origins in the first British martyrdom, and so occupies a unique place in the country's affections. Its early history can be summarised as follows. Alban, thought to have been a British-born Roman citizen, was living in the town very early in the third century AD when it was Verulamium, the third largest Roman settlement in Britain. One of the underground Christians of those very early days, he was martyred by the Emperor Septimius Severus's younger son in about 209 AD for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. The place of his martyrdom became a popular destination for pilgrims, and Bede refers to a "church of wondrous workmanship" here as the scene of many miracles (see Edwards 126). By the end of the eighth century, the site had been developed as a monastery, and there was further rebuilding by the Normans. Fortunately, the main structure of the church survived the dissolution of the monasteries, to be brought into service again as a parish church. A new purpose was found for the spacious Lady Chapel: this was used as the city's grammar school. The upkeep for such a large building was a problem, however, and by the nineteenth century there were cracks in the tower and holes in the roof.

St Albans St Albans

Left: Plain Wooden Nave and Decorated Choir Ceilings. Right: St Albans Shrine.

Repairs carried out in the earlier part of the century were not enough to preserve the fabric of the building. After a public meeting in 1856, funds were raised and restoration work began in earnest under the guidance of Sir George Gilbert Scott himself. In particular, the central tower was made safe again, the listing of the south side of the nave was corrected, and St Alban's shrine was reconstructed, albeit rather crudely, from the many pieces of it which were found scattered around. All this was still in the nature of repair rather than restoration, and, as such, it was essential to the very survival of the building.

However, Scott died in March 1878. Just as his design for the Foreign Office in Whitehall had brought to a head the Battle of the Styles, so now his death brought the issues surrounding radical Victorian restoration to the fore. The large abbey church had recently become the cathedral for a newly formed local diocese. A new member of the restoration committee — the barrister, Low Church man and horologist, Sir Edmund Beckett — was determined to leave his stamp upon it. Beckett is best known now for having designed the great clock for Crystal Palace and the inner workings of Big Ben, but he was also an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as a man of great personal wealth (his father had founded the Great Northern Railway company). His influence therefore carried considerable weight. It was at this point that the committee decided to press ahead with a new high-pitched roof for the long nave (St Albans has the longest nave of any British cathedral).

Morris, in his role of honorary secretary of the newly formed SPAB, was incensed. A letter of complaint was duly despatched to the committee. Morris also wrote to the Times in support of a similar complaint already made by Lord Carnarvon, chairman of the Society of Antiquities: "I have no doubt that the opinion expressed by Lord Carnarvon represents the feelings of antiquaries and men of taste throughout the country very generally," he declaimed (2 August 1878). A further, much more detailed, letter to the Times remained unpublished among Morris's papers. Here he pleaded for "Protection in the place of Restoration" — in other words, for the church to be "watchfully, constantly and reverently repaired" rather than precipitately altered to produce what he feared would be a "feeble and lifeless forgery" (26 August 1878). These words were all taken straight from the Manifesto of the SPAB, which he had composed in the previous year. St Albans, with its unique spiritual and long architectural history, must have seemed a symbol of all he wished to preserve in our heritage, just as Beckett himself must have seemed the epitome of the "unoriginal and thoughtless hack" who dared to tamper with it (Manifesto).

Beckett, however, simply offered to foot the entire restoration bill himself if his designs were accepted. As far as the Bishop and the city fathers were concerned, the offer was irresistible. Old-fashioned even for his own time, and known for his "arrogance and bile" (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), Beckett now became more combative and autocratic than ever. One of the people he argued with, for example, was George Edmund Street, who had been commissioned to restore the high altar screen. Nothing could stop him now from installing the new roof, along with a new neo-Gothic west front which many still consider to be totally disproportionate. Besides these major alterations, others, like the replacement of the beautifully decorated nave ceiling with a plain wooden one, also aroused people's wrath. A story told of the Rose Window in the north transept reveals much about both the architect himself, and the hostility with which his work was received. Whether or not he really designed it after tossing coins on the floor to see how they fell, it gained the nickname of "the Banker's Window." Without citing the story itself, a recent critic notes that "it has been compared with an exhibition of Victorian coinage" (Edwards 128).

St Albans St Albans St Albans

Left: Original porch, the west end.

Middle: Medieval Painted Cathedral Pillar.

Right: Stone bosses on the Lady Chapel ceiling.

In fairness to both Scott and Beckett himself, a number of antiquities even in the west part of the church were in fact preserved. These include the two original side porches, and the many medieval wall-paintings which were found beneath the whitewashed interior in 1862. Moreover, it is generally accepted that as the work proceeded from west to east, Beckett became more sensitive to the beauties of the original structure. For example, the new floor tiling copied the original's pattern, and the stone bosses on the new Lady Chapel ceiling at the east end are an exact imitation of the bosses on the wooden ceiling which had had to be replaced. A measure of Beckett's personal commitment to the long project can be seen in his using stained glass in the Lady Chapel window to celebrate his and his wife's Golden Wedding anniversary (as a Low Church man, he had used plain glass in the Rose Window; the 18,000 original pieces were replaced with stained glass only in the late 1980s).

St Albans St Albans

Left: Rose window in the north transept. Right: Bust of Baron Grimthorpe.

The nave had been reopened in October 1885. In the following year, Beckett had been created a peer, becoming Baron Grimthorpe of Grimthorpe in Yorkshire. Most of the important work was completed by 1893. Lord Grimthorpe, as he was now called, died in 1905 and was buried in the churchyard outside the cathedral. He gave his own features to the sculpture of St Matthew near the western door of the cathedral, and there is also a bust of him in the north transept, below and to the left of the Rose Window.

Grimthorpe's case is not as unusual as it might seem. For example, Street's work on Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (1868-78) also involved radical and contentious changes. Yet it was Morris rather than Grimthorpe who expressed the true spirit of his era. While the verb "to Grimthorpe" entered the English language of the time as a pejorative term for such insensitive "restoration," the growing preoccupation with the creativity of pre-industrial times led not only to the establishment of the SPAB, but also to the Arts and Crafts Movement, giving us such architectural gems as Webb's St Martin's Church, Brampton; John Dando Sedding's Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London; and Mary Watts's highly collaborative local project, the Watts Cemetery Chapel in Compton. Besides, Morris's views on restoration, not being as extreme as Ruskin's, have achieved widespread acceptance in our own times. As Paul Wordsworth puts it, "a light and honest touch, respecting the story the building has to tell whilst ensuring its continued use and hence preservation, is needed to ensure that our stewardship adds value specifically to the building itself, and more generally to our culture and society."

As for St Albans itself, it is true that the recently built red brick Chapter House fits well with the sturdy brick tower, suggesting what the cathedral might have looked like in more tactful hands. Nevertheless, there has long been a grudging acceptance "of the soundness of the Grimthorpe restoration" (Jarvis 24). And now that the west front has weathered and blended in with the late eleventh- to early twelfth-century brick tower, fourteenth-century Lady Chapel, and Beckett's own high-pitched "Norman" roofs, we might even accept that it is, in its own way, impressive. At the very least, whether Morris would have liked it or not, the idea he expressed in his Manifesto that in the past every change, "whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap," has been proved true all over again.

Sources

Collingwood, W. G. The Life of John Ruskin. London: Methuen, 7th ed. 1911. Available at Project Gutenberg.

Edwards, David L. The Cathedrals of Britain. Andover: Pitkin, 1989.

Henning, Erich. A Walk through the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban. Rev. ed. 2004. Available in the cathedral bookshop.

Jarvis, Geoffery. The Story of St Albans Abbey. 3rd rev. ed. 2003. Available from the cathedral bookshop.

Morris, William. "Manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)" at www.marxists.org.

_____. "St Albans Cathedral I" at www.marxists.org.

_____. "St Albans Cathedral II" at www.marxists.org.

"Edmund Beckett, first Baron Grimthorpe." The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ruskin, John. "The Lamp of Memory." Selections from the Works of John Ruskin, ed. Chauncey B. Tinker. Boston: Riverside, 1908. Available at Project Gutenberg.

Wordsworth, Paul. "Conservation Issues in Building and Maintenance Programmes" (2005). Available at Conservation Issues in Building Maintenance Management site.


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Last modified 29 September 2006