COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

A new carving in place of the original on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral. (S)
A new carving in place of the original on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral. (S)
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David takes a look at restoration projects in British cathedrals which saw many features removed and destroyed in the name of returning the buildings to their purest form.

You will be familiar with the Irishman’s spade (it’s traditionally the Irishman’s, though other national stereotypes are available) that has been used since at least his great-grandfather’s time.

Youknow the one – over the years it has had both a new handle and a new blade, but it is, notwithstanding, still the original.

A spade was the subject of a poem by Wordsworth; one of his worst efforts; it starts ‘SPADE! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands’ and hails it as ‘A trophy nobler than a conqueror’s sword.’

A noble spade as heirloom is not something that we’d all recognise. But we will instantly recognise the emotion behind the idea when 
we consider art – it’s the premise on which the television series Fake or Fortune is based.

That painting a lucky person bought for a song in a local junk shop or inherited from an eccentric aunt, and which he or she has always suspected to be a Constable or a Vermeer or a Van Gogh, is thoroughly investigated in best Sherlock Holmes manner before the final reveal; has all that cleaning away of layers of muddy repainting revealed a masterpiece – or an amateur daub?

This process – stripping away accreted layers of change to get back to the original of a work of art – seems to hold no fears in the world of fine art. It’s a process that in the 19th century was applied to old buildings, too.

For many years during that period many architects believed that it was their duty to return mutilated buildings (and this nearly always meant Gothic buildings) to their purest form.

Before the late 18th century Gothic was considered to be a style of barbarity and crudeness, although Wren sometimes used the style, as he did when he rebuilt the church of St Mary Aldermary in London or when he completed Tom Tower in Oxford.

Vanbrugh built ruined Gothic towers on the Castle Howard estate. Hawksmoor completed the west towers of Westminster Abbey in Gothic so as not to jar with the existing structure.

As the century turned from 18th to 19th, James Wyatt (architect of Ripon Town Hall) was going round the country ‘restoring’ cathedrals.

Wyatt was considered knowledgeable about Gothic architecture so, despite some objections from people who really did know about it, he was let loose on many of England’s greatest buildings. The results were not happy. At Salisbury Cathedral he decided to make the building more ‘pure ‘ by stripping away all additions back to the original Early English style. This included the demolition of two later medieval chapels.

At Hereford he gave the cathedral a new west front and destroyed a good deal of the upper parts of the Norman cathedral as he did so. At Durham he demolished much of the Chapter House, had two inches chiselled off the entire surface of the building – and was narrowly prevented from demolishing the Galilee Chapel at the west end.

No wonder the great Gothicist Pugin wrote, ‘All that is vile, cunning and rascally is included in the name Wyatt’ and called him ‘this monster of architectural depravity – this pest of cathedral architecture.’

Yet what Wyatt did was a foretaste of what many respectable Victorian architects, who reckoned themselves to be followers of Pugin, did themselves. Just before Queen Victoria came to the throne – but when Pugin’s ideas about Gothic architecture were at full flow – architects were attacking our great buildings. Edward Blore and William Railton, for example, ‘restored’ Ripon Cathedral in the 1830s. Between them they provided a new, cheap, deal vault to the nave and plaster ‘Gothic’ vaults to the choir and transepts.

All this was swept away by Sir Gilbert Scott in his later restoration during the 1860s. But Scott, though he perhaps had more feeling for true Gothic, often did not hesitate to ‘restore’ to a conjectural style – usually what he called ‘Middle Pointed’ and which we generally known as the Decorated period. Sometimes these restorations were a triumph – his restoration of the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey is usually accounted a success, for example – but even in his time voices of doubt began to be raised.

William Burges, architect of Studley Royal and Skelton churches, wrote, ‘We dread any restoration lest damage should be done to its precious fragments, any attempt to make a smart new building will be worse than leaving the place alone.’ It was an argument that gradually gained ground.

A proposed ’restoration’ of Tewkesbury Abbey by Sir Gilbert Scott inspired William Morris to found The Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877.

In the SPAB manifesto he wrote of ‘those who make the changes wrought in our day under the name of Restoration, while professing to bring back a building to the best time of its history, have no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible.’

Gradually the SPAB philosophy of conservative repair gained ground, and many sensitive architects undertook conservative repair rather than wholesale rebuilding – where stonework was perished, for example, they would ‘stitch’ in repairs with tiles rather than replace with new stone.

This was not always the case, of course, and interventionist ‘repairs’ – the equivalent of removing those layers of paint to see if there really is a Rembrandt beneath – have continued. The west door of York Minster and the replacements of the Norman frieze at Lincoln are recent examples.

We may leave the last word with Ruskin, who in 1874 refused the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

In a statement that should still be taken to heart both by architects and, perhaps by other ‘restorers’ of art, he gave his reason for refusing as ‘the destruction under the name of restoration brought about by architects’. Perhaps that’s properly calling a spade a spade.