The townspeople of Tewkesbury did not want their fine old Abbey Church left behind their neighbouring Three Choirs cathedrals in the race for funds to make it appropriate for the Victorian form of worship. Although it does not have the status of a cathedral, it is the same size as Hereford, larger than St David’s and Ripon, and architecturally, just as interesting. A meeting at Tewkesbury Town Hall was held in May 1864, called by a local solicitor and newspaper proprietor, Frederick Moore. One of those present was Sir Edmund Lechmere, whose bank, the Worcester Old Bank, had a branch in Tewkesbury and it was presumably through Lechmere that the meeting decided that Scott should be commissioned to produce a report.
When Sir George Gilbert Scott inspected the Abbey he found that it contained a huge corporation pew, galleries and the pulpit stood against the north-east tower pier surrounded by box pews. He presented a report in August 1864 to another meeting of the principal inhabitants of Tewkesbury, when he stated that the exterior was ‘in a much better state of repair than you generally find a similar church to be’ and required little to be done to it. He had been called in, not for the structural problems which usually beset his cathedral restorations but purely to refit and reorganise the interior. He ‘would make a clean sweep of the internal fittings, which were as unecclesiastical and as bad as they could be’. He proposed to completely alter the choir by removing the organ and screen, which stood in the middle of the nave blocking the view of the east end, and to provide a new low screen in its place. The meeting set up a restoration committee with Lechmere as chairman and Moore as secretary.
An appeal for funds was launched and Scott was asked to produce an estimate. Presumably as Scott’s rather sanguine report had suggested that there was no urgency, it was agreed that the work should not be put in hand until enough funds had been accumulated to see the work through. This seems a particularly strange decision, as Scott had not yet stated the amount of money that was required for the work, and the early enthusiasm generated by the initial meetings could evaporate long before sufficient funds had been acquired to carry out the work. In the May of the following year, 1865, Scott produced another report but nothing happened. Scott was to be embroiled in the Albert Memorial for some time to come and it was another five years before he produced an estimate for the work to be done to the choir. This included removing the organ from the choir to the north transept, new seats and stalls, reflooring, repairing the stonework and the roofs, all for £4,850.
Still nothing happened until a local stone-mason, Thomas Collins, who had already worked with Scott on his sensitive restoration of Pershore Abbey between 1862-4, intervened. Collins was a native of Tewkesbury, who had had a life long love affair with the ancient Abbey, and in 1872 he offered to remove the galleries and repair the stonework at his own expense. His initiative seems to have spurred others into action and in July 1874 Lechmere presided over a meeting to approve Scott’s plans to rearrange and repave the choir, restore the tower arches and four bays of the nave and to provide new fittings in the choir. Scott does not seem to have been present, but Collins told the meeting that the work would cost £3,000, whereupon it was decided to set up an appeal committee to raise the necessary funds. This was highly successful as the contract was signed with Collins on 22 February 1875.
Scott proposed to move the old oak choir stalls to what he said was their original position, to the east of the tower, but this seems to have given rise to considerable discussion, which lasted until the summer of 1876. At this stage, the restoration consisted of cleaning the walls of the chancel and the transepts and making good the damaged stonework. The restored decorations were carried out by Burlison and Grylls. This was a firm set up in 1868 by the son of Scott’s assistant and friend, John Burlinson, also John, with his fellow pupil at Clayton and Bell’s, Thomas John Grylls. Scott must have been very relieved that these young men were carrying out the work, after Gambier Parry wrote from Ely in 1874 to say that ‘he was deeply engaged on costly work’ and unable to attend although he did send a donation of £20. However with Tewkesbury only ten miles from Highnam, it was inevitable that Parry would want to interfere with the wall painting going on there. When Scott died, Parry soon became involved and carried out some surprisingly restrained decoration to the nave vaulting.
Burlison and Grylls required an additional £4,000 for their work and as it was quite clear that extra funds would be required, it was decided to launch a national appeal by holding a meeting in the library of Lambeth Palace on 3 March 1877. Dr Ellicott, the Bishop of Gloucester, presided over an awesome assembly including Lord Beauchamp, Beresford Hope and Grimthorpe. Lechmere presented a report and Scott described the work yet to be done and probably displaying a drawing that he was to submit to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in the following May. This shows the whole of the interior of the abbey opened up, with only a low screen on a single step between the western piers of the tower, and a typical Scott reredos behind the High Altar. When the drawing was published in The Building News, in May 1877, the text stated that Scott had taken up the old paving but the new one had not then been laid. Here Scott produced one of the most spectacular parts of his restoration, although the work was only completed after his death. The whole of the chancel floor is covered with specially made tiles by Godwin, mostly in red and yellow in the medieval style and incorporating the coats of arms of notables connected with the Abbey, including Prince Edward who was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury and his enemy the Duke of Clarence. Scott seems to have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the heraldry was correct. He probably consulted Stephen Isaacson Tucker, the Rouge Croix Pursuivant of Arms, who had helped him at Rochester Cathedral.
The first service after the choir was reopened was held on 10 December 1877, only three months before Scott’s death, but there was still much to be done. The choir stalls needed to be installed while the font, screens, reading desks and lectern had yet to be provided. The uniformity of style and the solidity of the structure of Tewkesbury gave Scott little opportunity for archaeological detective work but he did cut a slot into the base of the great west window to find that the original Norman arch was even deeper than the existing recess and the window correspondingly narrower.
Immediately after Scott’s death both his architect sons succeeded to the restoration but by September 1878 John Oldrid alone was in charge. He designed a Purbeck marble bowl for the old font base and a reredos which was not executed. He also designed the pulpit, but it was not until 1891 that his design for the choir screen was approved and this is a much taller structure than that shown on his father’s proposals of 1877. The official re-dedication ceremony took place on 23 September 1879, but John’s son, Charles Marriot Oldrid Scott, was still working on the Abbey in 1914, fifty years after his grandfather started the restoration.
While engaged at Tewkesbury, what Scott had considered to be a small affair and minor disagreement 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 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. At the end of his life, Morris’s attack on his work at Tewkesbury left a stain on his reputation which took well over a hundred years to recover.
Jones, A., Tewkesbury Abbey: Church or Ancient Monument? The Victorian Restoration Controversy (Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury, 1988), pp. 3-4, 5, plate, 6-7.
Building News, XI, 12 August 1864, p. 617.
The Builder, XXVIII, 19 March 1870, p. 232.
Wilson, M., Pershore Abbey (R. J. L. Smith, Much Wenlock, 1997), p. 10.
The Builder, XXX, 13 July 1872, p. 552.
Building News, XXIII, 16 August 1872, p. 130.
The Builder, XXXII, 13 June 1874, p. 512.
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), 73, 74, 88, 106, 115.
Building News, XXVII, 11 September 1874, p. 327.
Harrison, M., Victorian Stained Glass (Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1980), p. 76.
Farr, D., Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888) as Artist and Collector (Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1993), pp. 24-5.
Building News, XXXII, 9 March 1877, p. 239.
Building News, XXXII, 11 May 1877, pp. 464, 472-3.
Beaulah, K., and van Lemmen, H., Church Tiles of the Nineteenth Century (Shire Publications, Princes Risborough, 2001), p. 39.
Scott’s Recollections, IV 195, 256-7.
Building News, XXXIII, 30 November 1877, p. 549.
Pevsner, N., Verey, D., and Brooks, A., Gloucestershire I: The Cotswolds in the Buildings of England (Penguin Books, London, 1999), p. 361.
Blunt, J. H., Tewkesbury Abbey and its Associations (W. North, Tewkesbury, 1898), pp. 131-2.
Miele, C. (ed.), William Morris on Architecture (Academic Press, Sheffield, 1996), p. 28.
Harvey, Sir P. (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1973), p. 47.
Scott, G. G., Scott, G. (ed.), Personal and Professional Recollections (Sampson Low, Murston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1879), p. 367.
Mackail, J. W., The Life of William Morris (Longmans, Green, London, New York, Bombay, 1901), vol. I, pp. 340-2.
Parry, L. (ed.), William Morris (Philip Wilson, London, 1996), pp. 80-1.