In the midst of the controversy over his extraordinary pyramid at Chester, the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral offered Sir George Gilbert Scott what would have seemed a much more straight-forward commission; to make their cathedral more appropriate to the Victorian form of Anglican worship. Their great cathedral was structurally sound and in good external repair, having been lovingly maintained over the centuries.

Scott and Moffatt would have passed though Exeter to visit the seven workhouses that they were building in the west of Devon and in Cornwall from 1836 onwards, but in 1838 they became involved in a scheme for a large-scale housing development on the east side of the city in Heavitree Road. Scott probably also had contacts in Exeter from an early stage in his career. Charles Fowler, the architect of Hungerford Market, had served his articles in Exeter with John Powning who was the father-in-law of the architect Robert Stribling Cornish. Cornish became an important personage in the civic affairs of Exeter, rising to become its mayor in 1852, and could well have been involved in the charity that chose Scott and Moffatt’s scheme for the Heavitree Road site. Certainly Scott knew Cornish many years before he was commissioned to restore the cathedral.

Scott wrote that he ‘had been Consulted on some matters by the then architect the late Mr Cornish of Exeter a very kindly & excellent old Gentleman and a very practical man’, but it is not clear what work he carried out on the cathedral. By the time that Scott was commissioned to produce plans and an estimate in 1869, Cornish was over eighty years of age and had probably retired as the cathedral architect. On 14 August 1869, The Builder reported that the choir of the cathedral was to be restored at a cost upwards of £12,000 but only £5,000 had so far been subscribed and this included £1,000 from the bishop, who was to die during the following month. This was the indomitable Dr. Henry Phillpotts (1778-1869), who had been the Bishop of Exeter for nearly thirty-nine years. Within a few days of Phillpotts’ death Gladstone offered the post of Bishop of Exeter to the headmaster of Rugby School, Frederick Temple (1821-1902). Over forty years younger than Phillpotts, Temple was a liberal educationalist who could not have been more different to his predecessor. With a background like Howson’s, Scott might have assumed that the new bishop would be sympathetic to his ideas, but during the year after Phillpotts’ death, nothing was done towards implementing his proposals. Then, on 17 December 1870, The Builder announced that the ‘monetary difficulty’ was now at an end due, apparently, to the generosity of the Reverend Chancellor Harington, who would donate £4,000 to allow the work to proceed in accordance with Scott’s plans.

Edward Charles Harington (1804-1881) was a member of a grand family descended from Sir John Harington, an Elizabethan courtier, and was supported in the restoration by another wealthy residentiary canon, Philip Freeman (1818-1875), the Archdeacon of Exeter. Freeman was a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge and a leading member of the Cambridge Camden Society. He was a brilliant scholar and a High Churchman with a keen interest in architecture and an authority on liturgical questions. As a frequent contributor to The Ecclesiologist and other religious journals, he was probably well-known to Scott, and he may have been instrumental in him being given the work.

Early in 1871, the Dean and Chapter gave orders for the work to be put in hand, with the nave remaining open for services. The contractor was Edwin Luscombe of St. Sidwell’s Street, Exeter, who was described as ‘a builder of high standing in the West of England’, while Scott’s Clerk of Works was the ‘efficient and courteous’ Horatio Richard Snellgrove. As the work was about to start Freeman gave a lecture to the Exeter Literary Society entitled ‘The History and Characteristics of Exeter Cathedral’. Temple presided at the meeting. Scott wanted to retain the great fourteenth century choir screen on which the organ stands but Freeman proclaimed that the screen was not as old as Scott had stated and it should be removed. Scott obviously resented Freeman questioning his competence, particularly as it was in front of Temple, but the argument persisted. Six months later at a meeting of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, The Builder reported that ‘After some discussion as to the propriety of removing the old high screen, to which Mr. Scott, the architect, had objected, and which the dean and chapter had declined not to do, the report was adopted’. Scott says that the ‘Architectural Society & two local architects were furious’ about his proposal to retain the screen, ‘but I held hard & fast to it’. It is an outstanding example of Decorated architecture, with a set of early seventeenth century painted panels of biblical scenes over the arches on the nave side. It is very much to Scott’s credit that he fought to preserve this magnificent structure.

Work began on the cathedral restoration with the Lady Chapel, in May 1871, about one week after Freeman’s lecture. Whitewash was scraped off the walls and the decoration of the vaulting was an ‘exact restoration of what was found’. The Building News felt that the colouring was ‘artistic and striking, but not gaudy’, but Scott sourly comments that in the side chapels Clayton weakly departed from the original design ‘so far as to add some foolish patterns to the mouldings – otherwise it would have been correct’. Harington donated the east window of the Lady Chapel, which was an elaborate design by Clayton and Bell costing £600, and Lady Louisa Rolle (1794-1885) of Bicton near Exmouth, provided a lectern, a reading desk, and benches. The work on the chapel was completed in March 1872.

Work started on the choir in September 1871. The alterations to the great choir screen were immediately put in hand; the eighteenth century seats and stalls were removed, as was the reredos. Harington provided a new lectern, and along with Dr Blackall of Exeter, provided the £2,000 required for the new reredos. This is a very elaborate design by Scott and was carved by Farmer and Brindley. Dr Blackall paid for the central portion, which shows the Ascension with the Apostles looking on, with, as The Builder says, ‘mixed surprise and awe’, while Harington’s side panels show the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove upon the disciples, and the Transfiguration where ‘astonishment is depicted in the faces of the Apostles’. The whole affair is built of marble and alabaster and decorated with precious stones. It rose twenty-two feet above the floor of the choir so that the cross which surmounts the structure almost reached the cill of the east window. Scott found that ‘the original Reredos or altar screen had gone as high as the arches of the side arcades’, and seems to have used this discovery to justify his huge structure.

The new stalls, based on those at Winchester, cost £6,000 and were carved by Thomas Farmer of Farmer and Brindley in their workshops. These were just over Westminster Bridge from Spring Gardens. The Dean and Chapter stipulated that local artisans should be used whenever possible, but Scott claimed that by using London craftsmen he was able to personally control the work as it progressed in their workshops. That Scott was able to persuade a group of men who were proving to be particularly awkward clients that this was the best course of action says much for his powers of persuasion. It also explains why all his favourite craftsmen, with the exception of Skidmore, were in London, and demonstrates Scott’s determination to keep his trusted team together.

The work seems to have been progressing satisfactorily, in spite of difficult clients, when in 1873, Scott was faced with a serious challenge which questioned his professional, artistic, and, most hurtfully, his religious judgement. The late Bishop Phillpotts was notorious for his nepotism and in 1845 his oldest son, William John Phillpotts (1806/7-1888), was appointed Archdeacon of Cornwall. Soon after the completion of the reredos on 9 June 1873, the younger Phillpotts presented a petition to the Bishop protesting against its design. Phillpotts questioned the authority under which the reredos had been erected and claimed that the images portrayed on the reredos were contrary to the ecclesiastical laws of England. Temple issued a notice early in 1874, ‘ordering and enjoining’ the Dean and Chapter to appear before him ‘for the purpose of inquiring into the allegations of the said petition’.

On 17 April The Building News reported that the reredos had been found to be illegal and should be swept away forthwith, which would mean much discomfort to ‘a good many deans, chapters, and incumbents, not to mention the great bulk of moderate Churchmen’. The bishop was assisted in his judgement by Sir Henry Singer Keating (1804-1888), a judge of common pleas, who had been Solicitor General for two brief periods in Palmerston’s Governments of 1857 and 1859. The surprising decision by Temple to remove the reredos stemmed from Keating, whose background and advanced age would have made him unsympathetic to Scott’s ideas and the ecclesiological movement. He was of the opinion that an Act passed during the reign of King Edward VI during the Reformation, for ‘abolishing and putting away divers [sic] books and images’, still stood and that the reredos had been erected without the authority of a faculty. An appeal was immediately made to the highest ecclesiastical court, the Court of Arches, which reversed the judgement. However Phillpotts persisted and took the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which, on 25 February 1875, declared that the reredos did not require a faculty and that the figures were legal.

The whole affair had been a costly exercise which resulted in little more than establishing the legality of figure sculpture in Anglican churches. But Scott and his generation of architects had never thought of it as otherwise. The work had been suspended during the court proceedings but when it resumed Scott, it seems almost as an act of defiance, says that he thought that the altar platform was too low and the pause allowed him to raise up the reredos even higher ‘which was a very great gain’. What in 1869 had seemed to be a straight-forward refurbishment and restoration had dragged on. Scott became increasingly depressed with the whole affair. In February 1877, while the work was still in progress, he gave vent to his feelings about the Dean.

Dr Archibald Boyd (1803-1883), became Dean of Exeter in November 1867. As a graduate of Trinity College Dublin in 1834 he was immune from the Cambridge Camden Movement and probably sympathetic to Phillpott’s petition. Scott declared that Boyd:

was so outrageous in his interference that I was driven nearly out of My senses – over & over again all through this work & really could not get any part of my own way by the most wretched squabbling – which often made [me] perfectly ill & hate the very name of Exeter. Yet after all I believe him to be a good man at heart though delighting in what half kills other people! He seemed as fond of bullying an architect as a hunter of running down a fox & for the mere fun of it!

Scott’s last design for Exeter was the nave pulpit. This was paid for by a subscription raised to commemorate Bishop John Coleridge Patteson (1827-1871), the first bishop of Melanesia, who was killed on the Pacific island of Nukapu in 1871. Scott also designed a memorial chapel to the Bishop for Norfolk Island, but the work was eventually carried out by Jackson. The pulpit at Exeter is an elaborate design made by Luscombe in Mansfield stone, with panels of figure sculpture carved by Farmer and Brindley and was set up 1877.

The re-opening services of the cathedral were finally held on 18 October 1877. The work had lasted seven years and had cost nearly £50,000, but the cathedral, like Chester, was about to undergo an important change in its role. Temple was finding his huge diocese difficult to manage and proposed that Cornwall should become a separate diocese. In 1875 Lady Rolle donated a magnificent £40,000 towards the setting up of the new diocese and her generosity enabled an Act of Parliament to be passed in 1876 creating the diocese of Truro. In 1878, just after Scott’s death, a committee was set up which nominated seven architects to enter a limited competition for the design of the cathedral. Scott certainly would have been among the seven, so John Oldrid took his father’s place and sent in drawings of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, on which they had worked together and was already being built. The Scotts’ effort failed to impress the Truro committee and Pearson was appointed architect for the new cathedral.

In 1939, the monster reredos which had caused so many problems was moved, for reasons of taste rather than of principle, to Heavitree Church, to the east of the city centre, where it now overpowers the interior of this church. The clergy desk was moved to Loxbeare Church in 1970. Scott had embarked on Exeter when he was at the height of his powers and status. When it was finished, his reputation was being undermined and six months later he would be dead.

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