On 5 March 1877 an angry letter appeared in the magazine ‘The Athenaeum’.
The letter was from the artist, writer and socialist William Morris and his anger was caused by something he had read as he breakfasted that morning.
His letter began, ‘Sir, My eye just now caught the word ‘Restoration’ in the morning paper, and, on looking close, I saw that this time it is nothing less than the minster at Tewkesbury that is to be destroyed by Sir Gilbert Scott’.
In Ripon we know about Sir Gilbert Scott, for he was the architect responsible for undertaking the major restoration of Ripon Cathedral between 1862 and 1872.
It is generally acknowledged that Scott did a good job at Ripon; it is highly likely that the western towers of the cathedral would have collapsed without his work of underpinning and strengthening.
Much of his intervention at Ripon was sensitive and necessary.
But by the end of Scott’s life – he died in 1878 – the way people looked at restoration was changing.
For perhaps half a century many architects had taken ‘restoration’ to mean taking away later work to get back to what they considered the ‘pure’ style of the original building.
Many claimed they could do this by careful analysis and archaeological research – so if they found a stone that might have been from a 13th-century window embedded in a 16th-century wall, they could argue that it was correct to reproduce 13th-century-style windows as they ‘restored’ the building.
There was, by the 1870s, an increasing number of people who argued that this approach destroyed much of the evidence of the later history of a building.
So when Morris saw that Gilbert Scott was to undertake work at Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, he felt compelled to protest.
And, unlike most writers of letters of protest to newspapers, who vent their anger before, perhaps, moving to another subject, Morris was also stirred to action.
In the same year, 1877, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings – usually known as SPAB.
The Society was launched with its own Manifesto, written by Morris, which explained its rationale: ‘No doubt within the last fifty years a new interest, almost like another sense, has arisen in these ancient monuments of art; and they have become the subject of one of the most interesting of studies, and of an enthusiasm, religious, historical, artistic, which is one of the undoubted gains of our time; yet we think that if the present treatment of them be continued, our descendants will find them useless for study and chilling to enthusiasm.’
He went on to say that there ‘arose in men’s minds the strange idea of the Restoration of ancient buildings; and a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history... and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.’
That ‘arbitrary point’ was not chosen by logic, he suggests, but ‘those who make the changes wrought in our day under the name of Restoration, while professing to bring back a building to the best time of its history, have no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible.’
So what did Morris and his supporters want?
His ideal was to ‘put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.’
So mending and patching honestly without imaginative reconstruction, and, particularly, regular maintenance, are recommended as the essentials for really caring for an historic building.
It was this lack of regular care that had allowed buildings like Ripon Cathedral to get into a perilous state.
Other cathedrals fared worse that Ripon; on 21 February 1861 the central spire of Chichester Cathedral collapsed, and was later restored by Gilbert Scott.
Now, in its 140th year, SPAB has issued a new document that once again sets out its philosophy. ‘The SPAB Approach to the conservation and care of old buildings’, has been written by Matthew Slocombe, the director of SPAB.
As he notes in the introduction, ‘The SPAB approach began as an outcry against destructive work, but the guidance the Society offers today is practical and positive.’
He reiterates the need for maintenance and for the complete understanding of the history, design and construction of a building, its context and location.
Age is to be respected, and repair, not restoration, is paramount; ‘Knowledge of an original design is not sufficient reason for erasing later change.’
Repair should be conservative, using appropriate skills and the right materials, and carried out in an honest way using proven methods.
SPAB acknowledges that sometimes old buildings need modification or adaptation for modern use.
It advocates that any changes ‘should not compete unduly with the old buildings in form or position; nor should they mimic the original or pretend to be historic.’
There is much more detail in ‘The SPAB Approach’ that merits careful study, not least by the planners who take decisions about our historic buildings and by owners who have charge of them.
Gilbert Scott may have maddened Morris – but from that came perhaps the most influential of our conservation societies, for the SPAB approach is, generally, the accepted way of treating historic buildings today – if only everyone would remember to use it!
Find out more by visiting www.spab.org.uk.