Morris and Burne-Jones both entered Exeter College in 1853 intending to become priests, and were students when Scott embarked on the reconstruction programme there. Perhaps Morris’s dislike of Scott’s work, which culminated in a fierce campaign against his restorations shortly before Scott’s death, stemmed from the huge Victorianisation of the college which was going on while he was a student.
In 1865, Morris had worked for Scott designing the east window of Middleton Cheney Church, Northamptonshire, during its restoration for W. C. Buckley, a friend of both Scott’s and Burne-Jones. The window is attributed to them both along with Philip Webb, Ford Maddox Brown and Simeon Soloman. He also designed the ceiling, which was painted by Cottam of Banbury. The restoration was probably overseen by George Gilbert junior. However, a decade or so later and a row was brewing. Scott describes William Loftie as the leader of a ‘narrow party’ in 1877 and it is significant that in 1879 George Gilbert junior omitted ‘narrow’ from the published text of the Recollections. In the two intervening years, what Scott had considered to be a small affair had grown into a huge movement against the restoration methods that he and his generation of architects had employed. This was largely due to the efforts of William Morris. On 3 March 1877, the launch of the national appeal to complete the work on Tewkesbury Abbey was held at Lambeth Palace. Two days later Morris wrote off a furious letter which was published on the 10 March in The Athenaeum. This was a somewhat radical literary and artistic journal edited by the notorious Liberal M. P., Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, with Frederick George Stephens, who was an early member of the pre-Raphaelites as its art critic. In 1931 it became The New Statesman. This was the sort of paper that Scott avoided reading. However, Lechmere sent him a copy and when thanking Lechmere he wrote:
I have been told that I am systematically and very bitterly traduced by writers in that paper; but as I know that I do not deserve it, I never seek to see these articles, much less to answer them.
The letter that Scott saw in The Athenaeum opens with Morris saying:
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 Minister of Tewkesbury that is to be destroyed by Sir Gilbert Scott. Is it altogether too late to do something to save it, – it and whatever else of beautiful and historical is still left us on the sites of the ancient buildings we were once so famous for?
Morris then proposed that an association should be immediately set up:
to keep a watch on old monuments, to protest against all ‘restoration’ that means more than keeping out wind and weather, and, … to awaken a feeling that our ancient buildings are not mere ecclesiastical toys, but sacred monuments of the nation’s growth and hope.
Only ten days later, on 22 March, a meeting was held at Morris’s workshops at 26, Queen Square. There were ten present including Philip Webb and Stephens, and they decided to set up ‘The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings’ with Morris as its Honorary Secretary. By March 1879, its membership had grown considerably to include such luminaries as Ruskin and Carlyle, along with E. R. Robson, J. J. Stevenson, Loftie and Sidney Colvin. What in February 1877 had seemed to Scott to be a routine reaction to his work, two months later had developed into a torrent of criticism against the form of restoration that he had been carrying out for thirty-six years. He had championed conservation in the Plea, read a paper to the Institute, drawn-up directions to builders and Clerks of Works and advocated conservative restoration in all three of his Presidential addresses at the Institute.
It is therefore rather hard to bear that I should now be made the butt of an extreme party who wish to make me out to be the ring-leader of destructiveness.
It was through the Institute that Scott largely proclaimed the correctness of his approach, so it must have been galling that it was there that he received his most hurtful attack, particularly as that attack came from one of his former pupils, J. J. Stevenson.
After Scott’s death in 1878, not only were there fewer restorations to be carried out but John’s continuation of his father’s approach was out-dated in the face of the campaign led by Morris and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In practice, however, the Spring Gardens Academy provided its members with a solid foundation for restoration work from which even Morris benefitted. Hugh Thakeray Turner had been articled to Scott but in November 1878 he departed from John to go to George’s office and, in February 1883, he left there to become the first salaried Secretary of the Society where, of course, he was in constant touch with Morris. And Micklethwaite, who had left Scott’s office in 1869, became one of the S.P.A.B.’s preferred architects. But Morris never changed his opinion about Scott. As late as May 1889 Morris wrote to Georgina Burne-Jones saying that the church at Bradford-on-Avon had been ‘scraped to death by G. Scott, the (happily) dead dog’, but as at Tewkesbury, he was wrong. Scott had not touched the church. Morris then went on to say that the nearby Saxon church was ‘a very beautiful little building, but shamefully vulgarized by restoration’. This, of course, was the church of St Laurence which Scott’s disciple, Irvine, had brought to light a few years earlier. See also Burne-Jones