William Morris

The Restoration of Rouen Cathedral

I am glad to see that the Daily Chronicle understands so well the danger of the threatened restoration of Rouen Cathedral. It would be impossible to over-estimate the interest of this most beautiful monument of art, which, taking it altogether, is second to none in the two great architectural countries, France and England. And though visitors to the ancient Norman capital are most often captivated by the extraordinary elegance of St Ouen, and in consequence somewhat neglect the cathedral, the latter has both more interest and more special beauty than the former. As to work to be done, of course it is possible that structural repairs are necessary; nay, on some scale or other they are sure to be, for in these huge buildings unceasing watchfulness and unintermittent small repairs are the price which must be paid in order to avoid the two irreparabledisasters of ruin or restoration. I fear, however, with you, that this structural repair, which when done would scarcely be visible, is not what is contemplated, but that when the restoration is completed we shall find a great deal, perhaps the greater part of the detail redone into a mere modern imitation of the ancient work. This has been done for some years now in the case of the Palais de Justice in Rouen, which is in consequence, no longer a beautiful Late Gothic building, as I first saw it in 1853, but a lifeless modern `study in Gothic' prepared in the architect's office, and carried out slavishly by the workman reduced to a mere machine.

In these days when history is studied so keenly through genuine original documents, and has thereby gained a vitality which makes it such a contrast to the dull and not too veracious accounts of kings and nobles, that used to do duty for history, it seems pitiable indeed that the most important documents of all, the ancient buildings of the Middle Ages, the work of the associated labour and thought of the people, the result of a chain of tradition unbroken from the earliest ages of art, should be falsified by an uneasy desire to do something, a vulgar craving for formal completeness, which is almost essentially impossible in a building that has grown from decade to decade and century to century.

Again, the special beauty of medieval buildings which after a long period of neglect and ignorance, has forced itself on the attention of our time, should surely by now be recognised by all intelligent persons as the outcome of the conditions of the society of that epoch, a thing impossible of reproduction under the modern system of capitalist and wage-earner; the attempt at reproduction being much on a level with a fifth form boy's Latin verses set against a passage of the Aeneid. For the whole surface of a medieval buildings showsintelligent, free, and therefore pleasurable work on the part of the actual workman, while that of a modern building has nothing in it more than toil done against the grain under the threat of starvation. The `restoration' therefore, in the generally understood sense of the word, must mean serious and lasting injury to Rouen Cathedral, and may mean the destruction of all interest and beauty in it, as we may see at home in such examples as Worcester and Lichfield.

As to Peterborough, I do not wish to prejudge the case, and can only hope that nothing will be done there but ensuring the stability of the west front. But I am sure that the public ought to be heedfully on the watch, and that not a penny ought to be subscribed, until the report of what is intended to be done is frankly laid before it in all detail.

Letter to the Daily Chronicle, 14 October 1895.