William Morris

Peterborough Cathedral III

In your issue of the 28th ult. appears a letter from the Dean of Peterborough giving an account of the damage done by the recent storm to the west front of that Cathedral. Everyone who has any interest in art or history must be moved by this accident, and wish for its speedy repair. I may add also that from some years past it has been known that this magnificentwork of art, which is by common consent the noblest and most beautiful of our English west fronts, has shown signs of movement, probably due to some defect of the foundations caused by the draining of the fen-land, so that a thorough search into its present condition has been recognized to be necessary. I must say for my own part that an intimate acquaintance with the west front of Peterborough has made it so much a part of my life that i long to see it put out of all peril by judicious repair and essential strengthening of its structure, and I have no doubt that the Dean shares this feeling with me.

I heartily wish I could leave the matter here with a promise of what pecuniary aid i could afford; but there is another danger to which this great monument of English art is exposed, besides that of falling into ruin. There are two ways in which it may be dealt with by its responsible guardians; the first would be the successful, the second the unsuccessful way. If treated successfully, it will come out of this trial with its beauty intact, its external appearance unchanged from what we have known and admired in our lifetimes. Unsuccessfully treated, it will bear the appearance of a modern piece of work founded on an ancient design; and in that case it will have lost the greater part of its interest in the eyes of the historical student and the wide-minded artist; in short it will have been "restored," and its genuine existence will have come to an end.

That this is no chimerical danger is obvious from the fact admitted by almost all observers that all our great architectural monuments have suffered more or less from the "restoration" mania during the last fifty years, and that some (e,g. Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals, to go no further) have almost been destroyed by it.

I am well aware that the difficulties in the way of successful structural repair of Peterborough west front are, from the nature of the case, very great - that they are serious enough to tax heavily the skill and experience of the best masters of construction amongst us; but at the same time I am sure that they can be overcome by patience and the expenditure of a large sum of money. Only i think the occasion so important that the burden of undertaking the work should not be thrown on one man's shoulders, and that a consensus should be had of the best engineering and building skill before the critical part of the work is undertaken; though the preliminary work of supporting and shoring the threatened parts should be put in hand as soon as possible. And again, I must say that if the front be taken down and rebuilt, instead of being made safe in its place, as I cannot see any reason to doubt it may be, the work will not be done, but undone, and a lasting shame will lie upon all who are responsible for the preservation of the fabric.

It would be a great relief, therefore, to all genuine lovers of the master art of Architecture if we could receive an assurance from the Dean - first, that as little disturbance of the surface of the building shall take place as is possible, and that consequently no merely decorative features shall be reproduced in imitation of the old work; second, that every devise which skill and knowledge can suggest shall be exhausted before rebuilding be even thought of, and that consequently a committee of consultation chosen from the best (not necessarily the best known) engineers & architects shall be called together to consult on the various devices for making the west front good.

I think, Sir, that the public have a right to ask the Dean for the fullest possible information of what is intendedto be done, before they respond to his very reasonable and necessary appeal for funds. I cannot doubt that he will give that information readily and freely.

Letter to the Daily Chronicle, 2 April 1895.