Soon after his return from Germany, on 27 July 1848, Sir George Gilbert Scott addressed what he said was his first public meeting. He claimed to be very nervous at the prospect, which does seem rather extraordinary considering the number of submissions that he already made to numerous committees, some quite hostile, and at thirty-seven years-of-age, he was a mature architect with considerable experience and prestige. He says that, ‘Being a native of Buckinghamshire, I was requested to attend the first annual meeting of the Architectural and Archaeological Society for that county, and to read a paper’. The society was typical of the numerous antiquarian societies being formed at that time in the wake of the Ecclesiological movement. It was dominated by the clergy of the area. Membership was confined to communicants of the Church of England and most of the incumbents in the county were members, with the Bishop of Oxford as the ex officio President of the Society. The Archdeacon of Buckinghamshire was an ex officio Vice-President and all the Rural Deans in the county were on the Committee.
Sir George Gilbert Scott’s nervousness possibly arose from the realisation that he would have in front of him the leading churchmen of the area, who could, if they were impressed by his performance and sympathetic to his views, bring him a considerable amount of work. He probably thought, with some justification, that his audience would consist of the new generation of ecclesiologically-minded clerics who would be hostile to the well-known evangelical views of his father and grandfather. He admits that ‘My paper was very hastily written’, which probably contributed to his nervousness, and he was:
puzzled on what subject to write; but the restoration of our ancient churches being a matter which occupied much of my thoughts, and the reckless manner in which it is too frequently carried out being, to me, a continual source of grief and indignation, I thought I might be doing some good if I took advantage of the opportunity for making an appeal on behalf of a more tender and conservative way of treating them.
Sir George Gilbert Scott’s choice of subject was good. There was little point in outlining the rudiments of Gothic architecture, as these had already been explained at the Society’s first meeting, by the Secretary, the Reverend A. Baker, the previous January. Buckinghamshire was generally a poor county and most of the medieval churches, which are widely scattered across the countryside, were in an appalling state. The Industrial Revolution had hardly made any impact on the county so there was not any urbanisation with the need for new buildings, particularly churches. Scott was anxious to impress this audience of potential clients with his abilities as a church restorer. However, the lecture became almost an attempt to provide a rationalisation of the Gothic Revival and it was nearly halfway through before he started to talk about the restoration of old churches. He condemns the restorer who ‘adds what features his caprice dictates and removes such as do not happen to please him, without the smallest consideration that the building should be treated with more veneration than if it had been erected yesterday’. He refers to a classification of restorations made by Freeman in The Ecclesiologist into ‘Conservative’, ‘Destructive’ and ‘Eclectic’, and deplored the fact that an apparently serious discussion took place in public on the merits of the ‘Destructive’ system. These churches represent ‘one vast treasury of Christian art’, and ‘Conservatism’ should be the great objective. He urged his audience to look for clues as to how the restoration should be carried out by examining old remains and to avoid destroying specimens of decorative painting, stained glass, encaustic tiles and ironwork. The constant co-operation of the incumbent was essential in retaining this work. He mentioned that Petit pointed out that most parish churches have an ‘individual character’ which restoration should respect and that ‘it is often preferable to retain reminiscences of the age of Elizabeth, of James, or of the martyred Charles, rather than to sweep away, as is the fashion, everything which dates later than the Reformation’.
Although Scott seems to have been uncharacteristically brief, he asked his audience for their ‘kind indulgence for the needless length to which, for the want of time and skill to condense, I have extended these remarks’. It was, in fact, a powerful plea put across in a forthright manner and was well received. So pleased was Scott with his effort, that in 1849 he repeated it at a combined meeting of the Architectural Society of the Archdeaconry of Northampton and the Bedfordshire Society, at Higham Ferrers. Moreover, in 1850, it formed the leading part of his first book, A Plea for the Faithful Restoration of our Ancient Churches. But, perhaps more importantly for Scott, it seems to have secured for him a major commission at St Mary’s, Aylesbury.
Scott wanted to publish his Aylesbury lecture, but as it would have only taken up thirty-eight pages, he decided, perhaps on the advice of his friend, John Henry Parker (1806-84), the Oxford antiquarian and bookseller who published the work, that it should incorporate, ‘some miscellaneous papers’. A Plea for the Faithful Restoration of our Ancient Churches was completed in January 1850, and ‘dedicated to good Dean Peacock whose friendship had become one of my greatest sources of pleasure.’ He describes Peacock with the characteristic obsequiousness that he employed when addressing those in authority, as one
WHOSE ENLIGHTENED AND DEVOTED ZEAL IN THE RESTORATION OF THAT GLORIOUS TEMPLE AND RICH TREASURY OF ANCIENT ART WHICH HAS SO HAPPILY BEEN PLACED UNDER HIS GUARDIANSHIP, COMMANDS THE GRATITUDE OF EVERY LOVER OF CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE …
The Plea, as Scott admits, is little more than a rag-bag of his ideas in the late 1840’s, with the lecture coming over as a forthright statement in contrast to the rambling style of the rest of the book. Its importance in the development of Scott’s career was that it was a public restatement of his return to earlier ideas, after he might have appeared to have been deflected by Street’s robust arguments. Pevsner discusses the book at length and points out the discrepancies between Scott’s stated approach to restoration and the works that he actually carried out. Scott, as an architect, was well aware of his literary shortcomings, as he stated in the opening of his Aylesbury address, but perhaps with Pugin in mind, he thought that his writings could explain his approach to his work. In fact, he is not the first architect to have his buildings criticised in the light of his published theories. He seemed oblivious of the potential traps that he was setting for himself and, by 1864, he described himself as ‘a confirmed scribbler’, and filled three pages of his notebook with a list of his reports, lectures and published correspondence. Conspicuously absent from this list is a long report that he produced in 1843 on the state of Boston Church.Scott, after this dedication, might well have been disappointed with the tone of a review of the book when it appeared in The Saturday on 1 May 1858, presumably from the pen of Hope. The reviewer commented:
Though somewhat diffuse in style, and occasionally perhaps rather too familiar and colloquial in expression, this work is so agreeably written and with such evident heartiness and sincerity of purpose that it almost disarms formal criticism and may [be] recommended to general readers in pursuit of amusement as well as … instruction.
After several years work, this patronizing tone is hardly what Scott would have hoped for his serious work, but the review is probably better than the book deserves. The first print run was soon sold out and a second edition appeared in the following year, but the publishers mis-calculated the demand and it eventually had to be remaindered.