A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Morris's Least Favorite Scott

George Gilbert Scott's St. Pancras Station and (former) Midland Grand Hotel in London.

Sir George Gilbert Scott was the architect of some of the most beloved neo-Gothic structures in Victorian England; he was also a famous “restorer” of countless cathedrals and abbeys. But after Scott died in 1878, Morris called him “that (happily) dead dog”.

Scott's knack for extreme ecclesiastical makeovers made him some enemies, and Morris was clearly one of them. Things had started out badly between the two men - just months after Morris left Oxford's Exeter College in 1856, Scott knocked down the college's lovely Jacobean Chapel to make room for a new chapel in a gothic style – and relations never improved.

Morris hated Scott's work so much that he made it part of his own life's work to keep Scott and others away from historical buildings. In 1877, Morris proposed the formation of his “Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” (SPAB) with an urgent letter to the Athenaeum, in which he denounced Scott by name. Shortly after, a man named Sir Edmund Lechmere sent Morris's letter along to Scott, provoking a long, thoughtful response to the criticism.

Morris's letter to the Athenaeum and Scott's letter to Sir Edmund, when read together, constitute a sort of discussion between the two men. I've arranged excerpts from their letters into a conversation, to give a sense of the conflict between Morris and Scott as it stood in 1877, one short year before Scott's death.

MORRIS: My eye just now caught the word 'restoration' in the morning paper, and, on looking closer, I saw that this time it is nothing less than the Minster of Tewkesbury that is to be destroyed by Sir Gilbert Scott.

SCOTT: You, my dear Sir Edmund, know whether I am “destroying” the church, or contemplating such treatment of it as is intended by that term. You know whether I am “hopeless, because interest, habit, and ignorance bind” me. Nay, you know whether I have obliterated a single chisel-mark of the old masons, and whether I have not, lovingly and carefully, traced out the almost obliterated evidence and relics of much of their work …

MORRIS: ...Your paper has so steadily and courageously opposed itself to these acts of barbarism which the modern architect, parson, and squire call 'restoration,' that it would be waste of words to enlarge here on the ruin that has been wrought by their hands; but, for the saving of what is left, I think I may write a word of encouragement...

SCOTT: ... painful and galling as it is, I rejoice in such letters and protests: for true—most dreadfully true—it is that what “modern architect, parson, and squire call restoration,” has wrought wholesale ruin among our ancient buildings. I have lifted up my voice on this subject for more than thirty years, and, though not faultless, have striven with all my might to avoid such errors, and to prevent their commission by others. I feel more deeply on this subject than on any other ….

I am, therefore, willing to be sacrificed by being made the victim in a cause which I have so intensely at heart.

MORRIS: What I wish for, therefore, is that an association should be set on foot to keep a watch on old monuments, to protest against all 'restoration' that means more than keeping out wind and weather, and, by all means, literary and other, to awaken a feeling that our ancient monuments are not mere ecclesiastical toys, but sacred monuments of the nation's growth and hope.” 

Photo via Beth M527 on flickr, some rights reserved.

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