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'Pious archaeology' or architectural imagination? George Gilbert Scott's restoration of the cathedral

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Saturday, June 1, 2019

Document of the Month June 2019

Christ Church archives, D&C xix.b.1; DP vii.a.8, and DP vii.c.1

On 3 June 1869, George Gilbert Scott, the illustrious architect, submitted his report on the state of the cathedral. In spite of work done only a decade or so earlier, he was full of ideas for ‘improvement’.

In keeping with the fashion for English Gothic, he stated that he had ‘sometimes attempted to lay down a rule that all is to be respected which is antecedent to the extinction of our national architecture in the 16th century …’

While he acknowledged that some later things might be worthy of retention, what he really desired was a return of the cathedral fabric to its medieval glory.

Many of the windows had been spoiled, he said, to allow the installation of seventeenth-century glass; the high roofs had been lowered in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries; the east window, although of the ‘right’ date, had been deprived of its tracery; the south transept had been completely lost to the church (the verger lived in it!); the nave, of course, had been severely truncated by Wolsey; the tower had been closed in and the effect of the lantern had been lost in order to make things easier for the bell-ringers and the choir; and the north walk of the cloister had been completely vandalised by turning it into a muniment room and replacing the traceried windows with sashes.

Christ Church archives, D&C xix.b.1; DP vii.a.8, and DP vii.c.1There was much that needed to be done, and the cathedral as we see it today owes much to the work of Scott, not least the windows at the east end. Scott's original plan for the east end was actually to restore the old Decorated window but, during his surveys in 1869, he apparently found traces of a round one, and sketched the beginnings of his idea, based on the east end of Laon cathedral.

Scott reconstructed the whole of the east end, removing the medieval traceried window, the fourteenth-century glass of which had already been removed, either in 1853 when "gaudy French glass” by the Gérente Brothers was given in commemoration of the tercentenary of the foundation only seven years before, or possibly even earlier, in 1696, when Peter Birch paid for a window showing St Paul for the east end.

The replacement gave a more Romanesque look with a wheel window and round-headed windows, a scheme which Dr Bill, Christ Church’s archivist from 1955 to 1991, called "pious archaeology" rather than architectural imagination.

If you would like to read more about the restoration of the cathedral, see Judith Curthoys, The Stones of Christ Church published in 2017.