Choir Stalls, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury

In the list that he made in February 1877 of ‘cathedrals & other Large churches of similar class’ that he had been engaged upon, Sir George Gilbert Scott describes Canterbury as ‘in prospect’. In fact his only work at Canterbury was a scheme for new choir stalls. Willis was the acknowledged expert on Canterbury but after the Lichfield episode, Scott seems to have been rather wary of him. However his death, in February 1875, may have given Scott the chance to carry out a detailed examination of the medieval choir screen there. The results of this were published in The Archaeological Journal in March 1875. He then designed new choir stalls which were formally approved in May 1876 but not carved by Farmer and Brindley until after his death.

However, Scott’s plans and work at Canterbury led him into conflict with the anti-restoration movement, gathering momentum at that time. On 28 May 1877, with the RIBA President, Charles Barry, in the chair, J. J. Stevenson delivered his bombshell. It was entitled ‘Architectural Restoration: its principles and practice’. In it he cites Scott’s ‘admirable address on the evils of restoration’, read to the Institute in 1862 and then said:

It is difficult after reading his address to believe that any more old churches would be destroyed by restoration. Yet the process has been going steadily on, approved by clergy and architects, the press and the public.

However a paper published by the Institute in 1865, as a result of Scott’s address, he says, ‘seems to me to consist largely of recommendations for their destruction’. This was a short pamphlet entitled Conservation of Ancient Monument and Remains – General Advice to the Promoters of the Restoration of Ancient Buildings, which Scott as a member of the sub-committee of the Institute drew up as a directive for builders and Clerks of Works. In spite of Stevenson’s criticisms it was re-issued in 1888 in a revised and enlarged form.

Stevenson bewailed the fact that in the last thirty years so many old churches had lost valuable features, particularly those installed since the Reformation. He partly blamed the muddled nature of the Advice, as he called the pamphlet, where one paragraph said ‘a vigilant guard should be kept … against the theory that a restored church must be purged of all features subsequent to some favourite period’, while another stated that ‘one main object should be to get rid of modern additions put up without regard to architectural propriety’. He then spitefully said that he assumed that Sir Gilbert Scott had applied the word ‘modern’ in the case of the screen at Canterbury Cathedral to include work from the period of Charles II ‘or probably even of Edward VI’. Stevenson had probably seen Scott’s report of March 1875 in The Archaeological Journal, where he hoped that the fourteenth century screens would be faithfully restored from existing evidence ‘untampered with by modern ideas or prepossessions!’ But two days before he delivered his paper, Stevenson had gone to Canterbury and although the work had been approved by the church authorities, he must have been somewhat dismayed to find that nothing of Scott’s was to be seen.

In June 1877, Reverend William John Loftie (1839-1911) published an article in Macmillan’s Magazine entitled ‘Thorough Restoration’. Loftie’s article was much more of an outright attack on Scott than Stevenson’s paper and Scott promptly replied with a long article entitles ‘Thorough Anti-Restoration’ in the next Macmillan. Loftie attacked Scott’s proposals for Canterbury, which he had probably seen in The Archaeological Journal of 1875. He had already criticised them in The Times and, after the failure of the Society’s Tewkesbury attack, brought Scott’s proposals to the attention of William Morris as ripe for condemnation. Morris then fired off another of his famous combative letters on 4 June to The Times but again he had chosen the wrong subject at the wrong time. Scott in Macmillan shows up Loftie’s ignorance about Canterbury but is conciliatory towards the Society. He concludes his article with the following statement:

While I heartily sympathize with the new movement for the preservation of ancient monuments in its leading aims, I must protest against its being carried to the length of leaving our ancient buildings to fall into ruin, or to retain (in all cases) the effects of mutilation, disfigurement, and decay. And, as quite a secondary objection, I would venture respectfully to suggest that the legitimate aims of the movement are hardly likely to be furthered by overstatement or misrepresentation.

Scott’s work was carried out but his reputation damaged by such attacks.

Scott’s Recollections, IV 32, 233.
The Archaeological Journal, XXXII, March 1875, pp. 86-8.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 24.
Transactions RIBA, 1st Series, pp. 219, 223.
Scott, G. G., Scott, G. (ed.), Personal and Professional Recollections (Sampson Low, Murston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1879), pp. 408, 421-36.
Scott, G. G., Personal and Professional Recollections, Stamp, G. (ed.), (Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1995), p. 510.
Parry, L. (ed.), William Morris (Philip Wilson, London, 1996), p. 75.