Magazine article The Spectator

Restoration Period

Magazine article The Spectator

Restoration Period

Article excerpt

Hereford is the dullest of mediaeval English cathedrals. Long neglected and then badly treated by Wyatt `the Destroyer' after a west tower collapsed in the 18th century, it lacks an ancient west front and, despite the interest of the surviving architecture, now feels altogether too restored, too neat, too genteel. But once it could boast something truly spectacular and extraordinary which, if still in place today, could provide the necessary visual focus for the interior. This was the great openwork metal screen designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and made by Francis Skidmore, but its exuberance was too much for the refined tastes of the Dean and Chapter and Friends of Hereford Cathedral, who chucked it out just over 30 years ago.

That screen was one of the finest works by that eminent and indefatigable Victorian architect. As a good Gothic man, George Gilbert Scott always took a close interest in the crafts associated with architecture and, in all his buildings, his metalwork is particularly impressive - like the gates and railings around that piece of `jeweller's architecture' writ full size, the Albert Memorial. These, like the best of Scott's creations in iron or brass, were made by Francis Skidmore, of Coventry. The son of a goldsmith, Skidmore became the most celebrated `art metal-worker' of the midVictorian period, and Scott considered that he could `claim an eminent place both in skill, progress, and eccentricity'.

Gilbert Scott, of course, managed to get his hands on most of our ancient cathedrals and his huge practice in 'restoration' eventually provoked William Morris into founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. But what Scott did has often been gravely misunderstood. He was often faced with seriously decaying buildings which had been badly mauled by earlier restorers - like Wyatt - and, sometimes, he was inspired in recovering the original ancient design. He also had to refurnish cathedrals for modern choral worship when the ancient furnishings were long lost, and his new stalls, screens, pulpits, gas standards, rails and other fittings are often superbly designed and executed. Nor should it be forgotten that he was working for his ecclesiastical clients and their patrons, and he often had to tread a difficult path between liturgical needs and the imperatives of architecture and archaeology.

This was particularly the case with screens. Then, as now, the clergy often wanted uninterrupted vistas, but Scott knew the great truth that, as his son later put it, `the whole notion of a mediaeval interior is that every vista should be broken up. You ought never to be able to see from end to end of a Gothic church,' so that a cathedral was originally divided up by screens, a reredos, pulpitum, or whatever. Scott's answer to this problem was to design open screens, which made the necessary structural and liturgical division between nave and choir but which were semi-transparent, allowing distant views to the high altar. At Ely and Durham he erected screens of timber, but Scott's most interesting designs reflected his enthusiasm for using metal both as a structural and decorative material.

Such screens were installed at Salisbury and Lichfield cathedrals, but the largest and most elaborate was that at Hereford. It was robust Gothic in style, rich in ornament and sculptured figures with Christ placed in a central gable, and made of iron, brass and copper, marble, crystal, semi-precious stones and mosaic - and timber. Thirty-six-feet wide, thirty-four high and weighing over eight tons, it was elaborately painted and gilded and must have looked amazing when new. …

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