After the Victorians

Left: York, St Lawrence, capital of doorway, in 1823. Right: York, St Lawrence, modern replacement.

The font at Stone is a warning to all restorers, for similar well-intentioned things can happen even in our own day. At St Lawrence, York, for example, we do not have the original capital, which has decayed or at least does not survive; we have only an engraving made in 1823 (Browne). Although he was a careful recorder, John Browne did not recognise or understand everything what he was drawing, a situation made worse in a modern replacement for the decayed capital that introduced changes for which there was no evidence. The item in the photograph has been stolen: a new capital, better informed, is likely to be made to fill the gap in the doorway.

Left: York Minster, St Peter c. 1400. Right: York Minster, St Peter c. 2015.

To be fair, restoration — in the sense that the old can be re-created as it was – is impossible, as witness recent works at York Minster. The glazing and stone tracery of the great east window has recently been restored, enabling a simple comparison between the old version of St Peter dating from around 1400 which has been taken down from the top of the gable and is now in a garden, and its replacement. The possibility that the original figure had worn a papal tiara, and that therefore a "restored" figure should also wear one, was not pursued, but a bishop wearing the pallium was carved. At the opposite end of the Minster can be seen the restored fourteenth-century west doorway; this was unveiled in 1998, having involved the total replacement of the stonework of the arches, including an order of narrative voussoirs. This order had already been restored at least twice, so an accurate reproduction of the initial medieval state was not possible, a situation which stimulated a series of innovations. The arrangement of the narrative on the arch, its content and to some extent its models have all changed, due not only to the loss of evidence, but to historical evolution in taste and doctrinal emphasis. We have a record of the contemporary influences on these decisions, and the thoughts of the artist and the theologian involved can be followed in detail (see Young; Toy).

Medieval alterations were far more destructive of the Romanesque, but, perhaps because they are anonymous, they are seldom criticised: on the other hand, we have plenty of evidence for the attitudes and personalities behind Victorian restorations, which somehow stimulates a response. One thing we can complain about is that, although the Victorians were capable of making a good record of what they destroyed, they rarely did so. It is a large complaint because they restored so much: if we had been left more information, then it might be easier for a medievalist to look sympathetically at their creations. Perhaps the fading photographs seen in a few churches could be useful, and archives must conceal some valuable things – but they can never be enough. A second lasting effect of Victorian attitudes to the Romanesque is more insidious. This article has illustrated the demotion of Romanesque architecture in favour of Gothic, and the appropriation of the sculpture for extravagant decoration: both these uses trivialise the Romanesque. The implications of Victorian usage – that Romanesque architecture is dull and heavy, and that its sculpture is largely fantasy – have tainted popular and academic attitudes ever since. The Romanesque in Britain still has to shake off the feeling of inferiority imposed on it in the nineteenth century, though we might succeed in doing so if the continental perception of the style, as being the culmination of a long past, were adopted.

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Created 15 January 2019