Sir George Gilbert Scott’s ability to retain a lasting friendship with numerous people that he encountered during his professional career gives an indication of his personality, in that others valued his friendship and it also provided Scott with some useful contacts as they themselves advanced in their careers. One such contact was Henry Arthur Hunt (1810-89), who Scott probably first met when they were working as young men on Hungerford Market. After the completion of Hungerford Market in 1836, Hunt carried out a detailed estimate of the cost of the Houses of Parliament for Sir Charles Barry, the architect, and in April 1841, on Barry’s recommendation Hunt was appointed Surveyor to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. Although he was a quantity surveyor, in his new post he would be responsible for the Abbey’s large estate, which in those days included most of the land between Downing Street, in the north, and Great Peter Street in the south. The buildings of the Abbey itself were under the care of the Surveyor to the Fabric, who, since 1827, had been Edward Blore.
Blore decided to retire from general practice in 1849, at the age of sixty-two, and again he might have suggested Scott as his successor as Surveyor. However, the most important person in choosing Blore’s successor would have been the Dean of Westminster, who, in 1849, was the Dr. Buckland who had so upset Scott over the stone for the Martyrs’ Memorial. This was, it seems, just another example of Scott’s hypersensitivity. As events were to prove, he liked Scott and appreciated his work.
So with these men in influential positions and with his work on Ely as an example of what he could do, it is quite astonishing that he should write in his Recollections, ‘In 1849 I was wholly unexpectedly, appointed architect to Westminster Abbey; the appointment having just been resigned by Mr. Blore’. The only possible motive for this feigned surprise is that Scott had been lobbying behind the scenes for the appointment. This was probably through Hunt, who even in the Government Offices affair some ten years later, is not given any proper acknowledgement by Scott for considerable part that he played in advancing Scott’s claim for the work. The Ecclesiologist reacted to Scott’s appointment with the wish ‘that the change had taken placed much sooner’, and although he was an obvious improvement on Blore, his religious outlook was not at all in line with its High Church views. However, his broad Anglicanism could well have been seen as an appropriate background for the Surveyor to the Abbey.
Scott’s appointment ‘was a great & lasting source of delight. I at once commenced a careful investigation of its antiquities wh_ I have followed up ever since’. Like Hamburg and Ely it was to occupy him, and to provide him with a continuous income, for the rest of his life. But unlike Hamburg, it did not involve arduous and time-consuming journeys as it was only a short walk from Spring Gardens. In 1872 he was able to write that this appointment ‘has afforded me more pleasure than any other which I have had’. In addition, unlike most of Scott’s other works, there was no urgent structural work and even the refitting of the choir had just been completed by Blore. But soon after his appointment he carried out some minor works:
I restored to its place the beautiful iron grille to Queen Eleanor’s Monument, wh_[sic] had been removed in 1823. I also restored the grille of the tomb of King Henry V which had been broken up into a thousand pieces & lay scattered in “the old Revestry”.
In 1861, Gleanings from Westminster Abbey was published by Parker with Scott as main contributor. Here he states that both grilles were removed for the coronation of King George IV, but his date is wrong as this event took place on 19 July 1821, and what he calls “the old Revestry” is today known as the chapel of St. Faith, which fills the awkward space between the Chapter House and the south transept. He describes it as a beautiful vaulted room, but little known to visitors.
Scott seems to have found the various buildings, which over the centuries had grown up around the church, almost as interesting as the Abbey itself. This was probably because he was able to find among them traces of Edward the Confessor’s work, which he became very excited about and described his discoveries in the Gleanings. He does refer to manuscripts but his account is largely based on his own physical surveys of the buildings and the conclusions that he draws from them. He attempts to use his experience as a practical architect to put himself in the position of a medieval mason who had problems to solve within the constraints of his own time. For instance, he tries to determine the size and scale of Edward the Confessor’s Abbey, by looking at extant structures which were built to accommodate earlier portions of building.
The Gleanings reveals the difference in approach between Scott and the academic scholars who contributed to the work. Willis’s translation and explanation of the Fabric Roll of 1253, which contains the building accounts for that year, is a masterly explanation of the results of his detailed and painstaking study of the Roll. For any detailed research, Scott used his friend, the archaeologist, Joseph Burtt (1818-76), who worked with the records in the Chapter House, and in 1851 was promoted to the post of Assistant Keeper of the Records. Scott also relied heavily on publications, particularly a work which he refers to as ‘Neale’. This is, in fact, The History of Westminster Abbey by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773-1854), with plates by John Preston Neale (1780-1847), a well-known architectural draughtsman, published in 1818.
It was the Chapter House which particularly attracted Scott’s attention. He recalled in 1872:
I had almost immediately after my appointment as architect to the Abbey devoted a great amount of time to investigating & making measured sketches of the Chapter House then occupied as a Record office.
This was quite irregular. Scott was employed by the Dean and Chapter to look after their buildings, which did not include the Chapter House and the adjacent Pyx Chapel. These are the property of the Government and in those days they were administered by the Office of Works as relics from the Middle Ages, when the buildings of the King’s Palace of Westminster extended as far west as the Abbey. An early photograph, taken from the newly completed Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament, shows the sorry state of the Chapter House before Scott restored it. It looks like an octagonal shed, of no particular architectural interest, imbedded in a mass of Abbey buildings and hardly visible at all to the general public.
Scott was obviously fascinated with this building and was anxious to investigate its original form regardless of the fact that it was not his responsibility and that he would not be paid for his work. ‘I may truly say it was a labour of love & that not a point was missed which would enable me to ascertain the actual design of any part’. The proximity of Spring Gardens seems to have given him the time to pursue this particular investigation personally.
The Chapter House was built by King Henry III between 1248 and 1253, as part of his reconstruction of Edward the Confessor’s Romanesque Abbey. Almost from the outset it seems to have been used for secular assemblies, the first recorded being in 1257, and it is likely that it was here that the first parliament of Simon de Montfort met. The Commons continued to meet in the Chapter House until they were ejected by the monks of the Abbey in 1395 and it was then used for ecclesiastical councils. It seems that, in spite of its name, the Chapter of the Abbey never met in it. After the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, the building was not demolished as it was found to be useful for storing royal records and its walls were lined with large presses to accommodate parchment rolls, most of which came from the Exchequer. Over the centuries the capacity of the building was extended to take more records and although Wren, in the early eighteenth century, refused to tamper with the vaulted ceiling or insert a new floor, his successors in the Office of Works had little regard for the old architecture and the history of the building. The great windows were walled up, with pairs of small round-headed Georgian windows replacing them, and a new door was cut through from the north side. Internally, it was completely Georgianised with a gallery inserted at first floor level. In 1744, the great stone vault was considered to be dangerous and was removed to be replaced by a lower structure resting on the central pillar.
It was in this state when Scott first examined the building. He said, ‘Its beauties, however, are unhappily now for the most part to be judged rather by imagination than by sight, for seldom do we see a noble work of art reduced to such a wreck!’ He described his method of hands-on investigation in the Gleanings:
I was one day on the top of one of these presses, and on venturing to pull away an arris fillet which closed the crevice between it and the wall, I perceived the top of an arched recess in the wall behind the press, and on looking down into it I saw some round object of stone in the recess below. My curiosity being excited, I let down into it by a string a small bull’s-eye lantern, when, to my extreme delight, I saw that the mysterious object was the head of a beautiful full-sized statue in a niche. Permission was speedily obtained for the removal of the press.
To look at the details of the doorway of the Chapter House, he had to:
creep on to a mass of parchments and dust ten feet deep, and, after taking out the boarding at the back of the cases, to examine and draw, by the help of the little bull’s-eye lantern before mentioned; a most laborious operation, and giving one more the look of a master chimney-sweeper than an architect.
Scott then produced perspective views of the interior of the Chapter House and its approaches, showing it as a magnificent medieval monument. He exhibited a view at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1850, and five views were later reproduced in the Gleanings when it was published over ten years later.
There has never been any doubt about Scott’s unbounded energy and his enthusiasm for investigating medieval buildings, but the tremendous physical exertion that he put into this work is quite amazing, considering that he was not being paid and, at the time, there was little prospect of the restoration ever being carried out. Perhaps his improved financial position meant that at last he could indulge in work that personally excited him, regardless of monetary rewards. However, it was obvious that the public records had to be given better accommodation and, almost simultaneously with Scott’s investigations, a new Public Record Office was being built in Chancery Lane. This was completed in 1858 and the records were moved out of the old Chapter House.
The appointment in 1856 of Henry Hunt to the post of Surveyor of the Works in the Office of Works may well have helped to ensure that Scott would ultimately receive the commission, but it was not until 1866 that he was able to start the work, which lasted until 1872. It is often said that this was the best of all Scott’s numerous restorations and even his severest critic at the time, the Reverend William John Loftie (1839-1911), grudgingly admitted that he ‘must approve the greater part of the work carried out’. It was for his roof design that Scott received his greatest criticism. Here he found evidence of iron tie rods which, if he had re-instated them, would have obstructed the view of his new vaulting from below, so he abandoned the medieval construction and instead hung the vaulting from the great Victorian iron trusses that supported his new high-pitched roof.
In the Abbey itself, Scott was apparently delighted to be working for Buckland, whom he now considered ‘was excessively jovial & amusing’, but thought he was wearing himself out with his mind giving way. Buckland is considered to have been one of the leading geologists of his time, having carried out numerous investigations into minerals, particularly coal. He at first upheld the view that glacial deposits were the result of the biblical Flood, which according to Scott’s Bible, occurred in 2348 B.C., or 1656 years after the Creation in 4004 B.C., but Buckland later conceded that they were the result of glacial movement in the Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago. It may have been that Buckland’s mental breakdown arose from his inability to reconcile the geological time-scale with his religious beliefs, as much as his demanding life-style. To Scott, The Bible was ‘The Word’ and he would not have appreciated that there was any possibility that Buckland’s scientific discoveries could have created a conflict in Buckland’s mind.
Although he seems to make much of it, Scott’s association with Buckland at the Abbey probably only lasted a few months, before Buckland’s illness forced him to abandon both his geological studies and his duties as Dean. Scott tells us that he gave his last sermon at the service of thanksgiving for the cessation of cholera. This presumably was at the end of the 1849 epidemic. Buckland died in 1856, and during his illness, Lord John Thynne (1798-1881), the Sub-dean and son of the Marquis of Bath, took over. Scott said:
My communications with Lord John Thynne have always been of the most agreeable kind, and I believe I may number him among my best friends. Through him I have had works placed in my hands by the Duke of Buccleuch, & The Earls of Cawdor & Harewood besides others.
Scott tries to make something of these aristocratic connections, but in reality the work stemming from these noblemen seems rather meagre in relation to his massive practice. Having been brought up in the shadow of the Ducal power-base of Stowe, Scott, in spite of occasional radical-sounding comments probably stemming from his evangelical background, fully appreciated the importance of the nobility in the fabric of his own society.
Thynne’s sister was married to the Duke of Buccleuch who was patron of the living of Barnwell in Northamptonshire. In Scotland, the Duke commissioned him to build a new Episcopal church at Hawick in 1855 and he also carried out some work for the Duke at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries. Scott also restored and refitted Kilkhampton Church in north Cornwall in 1860, where Thynne as also the patron, and his brother, the Reverend Arthur Christopher Thynne, the rector, for whom Scott built a large new rectory.
Scott’s work at Westminster Abbey, during the six years that Tynne was in charge, included:
the new choir-pulpit, the enclosure of the choir from the transepts, wh_ [sic] had been left open when the choir was refitted under Blore. The iron sanctuary screen & altar-rail, some ameliorations in the lantern above, the stained-glass in the South clerestory of the choir & in the north transept …
Although the Chapter House and the Pyx Chamber were not Scott’s responsibility, the approaches to the Chapter House from the Cloisters certainly were. A staircase had been inserted into the Outer Vestibule to gain access to the library above, and this was divided from the entrance by a brick wall, which completely spoilt the appearance of the vaulting above. Buckland gave Scott permission to investigate the chamber immediately to the south of the Vestibule which, to his delight, he found had been the old access to the library so he was able to restore the Vestibule to its original glory by returning the library stair to its old position. When he had first entered the chamber he discovered that he was standing on a large heap of parchment rolls. He was, apparently, so excited by this discovery, that he describes in the Gleanings, how his resulting carelessness led to an unfortunate incident and an official censure:
I happened suddenly to be called for a few minutes from this newly-discovered record office, and forgetting to lock the door, a party of Westminster school-boys got in, and, … made free with the parchments. A little disturbance ensued, a fresh padlock was shortly afterwards put to the door, and I have been excluded for ten long years from my treasury…
With this great Gothic building now in his care, it seems that Scott would seize every opportunity to leave the office and go down to the Abbey. Not only did he make the theoretical reconstruction of the Chapter House, he also carried out similar exercises on the Abbey itself, by using his knowledge of medieval architecture, structure and materials, which with his imagination he combined to reproduce the forms of the past. How he thought these detailed studies would help him to design better modern buildings is not clear. It is perhaps significant that no important new commissions came into the office in 1850, and yet he seems to have been too busy to go to Hamburg that year and was apparently spending most of his spare daylight hours at the Abbey.
In the summer of 1850 he had ‘been constantly giving snatches of time’ to the ‘most careful study’ of the tomb of Queen Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, who died in 1369 and was buried in the Confessor’s Chapel at the Abbey. From the information that he and Samuel Cundy, the Abbey mason, obtained on the monument, Cundy, ‘mainly at his own cost’, made a six feet by four feet alabaster and marble reproduction of one end of the monument, complete with figures by Philip and coloured decorations by Thomas Willement (1786-1871), a well-known heraldic painter and stained glass artist. It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 and at the Architectural Exhibition in the following year. It is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
During ‘the long period of the poor Dean’s illness’, Scott also embarked on a programme of indurating the Royal Tombs with a solution of ‘Shellac and spirits of wine’ which ‘promises to stereotype the work in its present condition for an indefinite time’. The surfaces were often so tender that:
we cannot venture to touch it before the operation is performed. We therefore merely blow away the dust with a pair of bellows, with a long flexible tube and nozzle, and inject the solution with a syringe perforated with a number of small holes, so as not to disturb the crumbling surface, which, after the operation, becomes quite hard and rigid.
He regarded this process as ‘most satisfactory’ and went on to liberally squirt the solution on many other interior surfaces of the Abbey, including the wall arcading and the triforium. But he also applied it to the grand carved tympanum in the cloisters, over the entrance to the Chapter House. Here the semi-external conditions led him to express doubts about the effectiveness of the treatment in this type of position. Certainly today the whole thing is badly decayed and there is no indication that it was ‘exquisitely decorated with scroll-work’ as he describes in the Gleanings. The effect of Scott’s application of this wonder-potion was to give everything a rather unpleasantly hard varnished appearance, which probably in the long-run accelerated the deterioration of the stone rather than preserved it. He fortunately does not appear to have used it on any of the other buildings entrusted to his care.
When Buckland eventually died in 1856, Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-86) was appointed Dean, with Thynne remaining as Sub-Dean and retaining ‘a general directing power’ of the restoration work. Scott had some dealings with Dean Trench, but he was succeeded on 9 January 1864 by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1815-81), who took an ‘infinite interest in the works’. Stanley had been Professor of Ecclesiastical History and a Canon of Christchurch Cathedral at Oxford, and had attempted to steer the middle course between the evangelicals and the high churchmen. Throughout his life he travelled extensively and, in February 1862, he was considered to be a suitable companion for the twenty-year-old Prince of Wales to tour the Holy Land. It was no doubt these royal connections, as well as his broad church views, that brought him to Westminster.
The restoration of the reredos and its surrounding pavement was the most important work completed by Scott during Stanley’s reign at Westminster, although Thynne was still directly responsible for all the work. Scott says:
The mosaic pavement has been restored where it had been shortened eastward the old matrices having been found and refilled … The Reredos which I found in plaster has been restored in alabaster & marble with great care & precision. The 5 central canopies were found to be modern & to occupy the space of a recess intended no doubt for a rich retabulum. This has been restored.
Scott’s work was carried out in 1867, with the large mosaic panel, or retabulum, over the altar designed by Clayton and Bell and made by Salviati, representing The Last Supper. All the figures were added later by Henry Hugh Armstead.
Scott, for obvious reasons, disliked the huge classical monuments which had begun to appear inside the Abbey in the early years of the eighteenth century and by his time provided a distraction to the character of the fine Gothic building. He proposed that a special building could house those monuments worth preserving and provide space for future memorials. In 1863, he produced an ambitious plan for ‘a great sepulchral cloister on South side along College Gardens’, but nine years later he saw ‘no prospect of its being carried into execution’. In fact Stanley was keen to have such a building and, a year after his gloomy prediction, Scott produced a set of drawings showing a building stretching along Abingdon Street, opposite the Houses of Parliament, and turning westwards with its main entrance in a porch facing the south side of Henry VII’s Chapel.
The proposed building incorporated twenty-two smaller versions of the Chapter House windows along the street and would have required the removal of all the old houses along the west side. These have all disappeared since then but, perhaps thankfully, Scott’s dull building did not materialise. After Scott’s death interest in the scheme persisted, and in 1890 a Royal Commission was set up to examine the whole question. This resulted in a number of schemes being produced, the most spectacular of which, by J. P. Seddon, used Scott’s site but incorporated an enormous tower, rising to a height of 550 feet, completely dwarfing the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Scott’s scheme certainly lacked grandeur, but this one was ridiculous.
The last major work that Scott carried out at the Abbey was the start of the reconstruction of the north front of the north transept. This had always been the most used entrance to the Abbey and particularly when it formed the south termination of King Street, but the laying out of Parliament Square and the disappearance of King Street under government offices has meant that the transept front is now seen in a wider context. Scott wrote in July 1872, that ‘I am now planning the restoration of the northern portals’, but within a month, he was able to write that he was ‘now engaged in restoring one of the portals … May I be spared to see them all perfected!’ Poor Scott, however, was not spared, and he only saw the completion of the easternmost portal. J. L. Pearson succeeded him as Surveyor to the Fabric in 1879, although John Oldrid was allowed to take over his father’s work, completing the portals in 1885.
In 1935 Scott’s choir pulpit was sent to Bendigo Cathedral in Australia and replaced by the orginal of 1781, whilst his sanctuary screen was sent to Victoria Cathedral in British Columbia. Similar fates also attended some of Scott’s later works in the Abbey. The marble pulpit carved by Harry Hems, which was installed in the nave from ‘funds mainly provided by Sir Walter James’, was removed for King Edward VII’s coronation and presented to St. Ann’s Cathedral Belfast, and the brass altar rails that he designed for Henry VII’s Chapel were given to Street’s newly completed West Malvern Church in Worcestershire, by the Abbey as the church’s patron, in 1870. He also designed a frame for the portrait of Richard II in 1872, made by Clayton and Bell, and a brass to Robert Stephenson in 1859 with Hardman, showing a figure in modern dress on a diapered Purbeck marble background.
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Colvin, H., A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995), pp. 79, 756.
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Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), pp. 50, 191.
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Clarke, B. F. L., Anglican Cathedrals Outside the British Isles (SPCK, London, 1958), p. 101.
Brett, C., Buildings of Belfast 1700-1914 (Littlehampton Book Services, Littlehampton, 1967), p. 57.
Bury, S., and Physick, J., Victorian Church Art (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1971), pp. 62, 57.
Stanley, A. P., Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey (John Murray, London, 1869), pp. xv, xviii; n. 2.
Pevsner, N., London I, The Cities of London and Westminster, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1957), pp. 362-3.
Physick, J., and Darby, M., ‘Marble Halls’, Drawings and Models for Victorian Secular Buildings (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1973), p. 51.
Hyde, R., Fisher, J., and Sato, T. (eds.), Getting London into Perspective (Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1984), p. 90.