William Morris

Vandalism in Oxford

My attention has been called to an angry article in your current number under the heading: `Why "Blackguards"?' There is a good deal of matter in it which is personal to myself; but I do not think it right to trouble the public with any private grievance, when I have in my mind a crying public one. To speak frankly, I wish to use the opportunity afforded me by your article for calling the attention of your readers to a great public scandal. The words of mine quoted in the article in question were written under the influence of the grief and indignation which I felt, and am feeling, incommon with all those who understand the beauty of the art of the past, and its value to history, at the manner in which the public bodies at our older Universities have treated the inestimable treasures of art committed to their charge

Those bodies, which should have been the guardians of the beauty left us by our forefathers, have been industrious in destroying it during the last thirty years: I say the last thirty, and pass over the time when the destruction of ancient buildings was in a way excusable in any particular body, because of the general ignorance on the subject: an excuse which is no longer valid.

Thirty years ago Oxford was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and the most beautiful city in England. Will anybody (out of Oxford) deny that this beauty was a matter of importance to the education of the place? For my part, I assert that this visible embodiment of the genius loci was the one thing which gave Oxford any advantage, as a place of education, over more modern institutions. Without it, and except for the preservation of it, the University would have been far more useful if it had been removed to Birmingham, or even Manchester. Two-thirds of this beauty has now been destroyed; and who is guilty of this injury to the highest (rather than the higher) education? Clearly the Universities and Colleges; for if the townsmen have been partakers in the crime, who could expect mere ignorant laymen to refrain from acts of vandalism, when the most learned bodies in the country were setting the example of commercial destruction?

As to this destruction, I pass over mere blunders in art such as `restorations,' disastrous as those have been; although it might be thought that learned bodies ought not to have been worse than other people in their judgment of such matters, but better: what I now want to call your attention to is thatdestruction for the sake of profit of which there has been so much during the last few years. And I repeat that it is a great public scandal that the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge should be allowed to destroy, without the express permission of the whole nation, buildings which they look upon as mere marketable private property, but which should be the property of the whole nation.

It may be, indeed, that they will plead ignorance as to the value of these buildings, which would be a strange plea for bodies engaged in education to put forward. And yet I fear that they are ignorant. In that case cannot they learn from the instructed? Again I fear that they will not; that, like the writer of your article, they will plead honest poverty as an excuse for continuing to damage the community. And yet, are they content to be handed down to posterity as the greatest enemies that art has met with in this country during the nineteenth century?

Sir, I wish to make peace with these gentlemen whom my plain-speaking has so offended; for, indeed, my anger comes from my heartfelt love for Oxford and its best associations. But I cannot make peace until they cease to make war upon art and history, which, in my poor judgment, make up between them a full half of `education.' And an opportunity for peace is, it seems, now to hand.

Even if the Colleges had not existed, Oxford thirty years ago would still have been one of the most beautiful towns in England; it is heart-breaking to think of the disregard with which this side of its beauty has been treated; but there is still some of it left; and of all parts of the city, Holywell Street contains the most of this old town architecture, and is still a most delightful street, in spite of the gap caused by the gaunt and ugly new buildings of New College. It is not toomuch to say that it is a quite invaluable piece of modest town architecture. Now I am most grieved to hear the current report that this remnant of Oxford before the age of `Culture' is threatened with almost complete destruction; and I confess that I write this letter chiefly in the hope that some public protest may be made against its demolition, and that the Colleges, if they have any intentions against it, may be shamed into reconsidering them.

To conclude, I have two suggestions to make: the first is that the Universities and the Colleges should appoint a commission, whose business should be the preservation of all monuments of art which they could by any possibility deal with; such a commission, of course, to be composed of the persons best qualified to advise and act in the matter. I say most emphatically that it is the duty of the Universities to take some such step in order to put a stop to the orgy of destruction in which they have been indulging.

But if they refuse to do their duty; if, let us say, their honest poverty compels them to live by destroying the national property, I suggest as an alternative expedient that a society be formed for raising a fund where-with to buy, for the benefit of the nation, College property, of which old buildings or other works of art form a part, and which may come into the market from time to time. This scheme would have the double advantage of saving the old buildings, and at the same time helping the Colleges to the means of prosecuting any further experiments in competitive education which they may have a mind to. I am prepared to back my opinion herein, by subscribing to such an association as much as I possibly can.

Finally, allow me to congratulate Trinity College (Oxford) on having preserved the quaint and characteristic houses near its gates, and thus offering a contrast to itsambitious neighbour Balliol, the destruction of whose buildings is such a disgrace to the ancient House, such a gross insult to the `Famous Men and Fathers that begat it.'

Letter to the Speaker, 24 May 1890.