I’ve been looking at the National Portrait Gallery’s large collection of William Morris portraits. This photo (above), taken in the 1880s when Morris was in his fifties is fairly representative. For a man concerned to make every aspect of life beautiful and harmonious, he was notably indifferent to his own appearance. His hair is so uncombed he makes Boris Johnson look neat, his beard is untrimmed and he wears everyday clothes. Was this one of the blue workman’s jackets he was famous for? Whether it was or not, he was an exemplar of rational dress. In several pictures he wears a soft tweed suit and always wears a soft attached shirt collar, which was unusual, I think, before the 20th century, and here he appears to be wearing no necktie. He contrasts with Walter Crane (below), an extravagant dandy, with a carefully trimmed beard, waxed moustaches and colourful clothes, despite being a supporter of dress reform, who seemed to pay more attention to his appearance the older her got.
After reading Robert D. Best’s memoir, which I wrote about earlier, I found Brass Chandelier, the biography of his father, R.H.Best, the public-spirited proprietor of Best & Lloyd, a Victorian art brass founder which is still trading in Birmingham today. It gives an insight into the relationship between craft and industry, which I think was distorted in arts and crafts texts suggesting they were incompatible, and into contemporary ideas about design education.
Brass Chandelier describes an old firm that grew haphazardly a into Dickensian assemblage of workshops, laboratories and foundries over which Best paternalistically presided. He was on good terms with W.J.Davis of the brassfounders union, at one moment negotiating hard over wages with him, at another carrying out joint social investigations. Best insisted on the highest standard of craftsmanship, recalling Wedgwood in his demonstrative throwing of substandard work from an upper storey.
The firm was successful because of Best’s standards, because he listened to customers and because of his tight control of money. He would not move to a well laid-out, modern factory because he refused to borrow. But control was difficult in his rabbit warren. The system of group piecework that prevailed, a sort of internal subcontracting in which an artisan would agree to make something for a certain price and then employ his own assistants, was not easy to supervise. And there were pockets of inefficiency, for example, the horse that was kept for rare deliveries, with an expensive groom and a groom’s boy, no-one really knowing quite why, until it was discovered that somebody’s roses depended on it.
Best kept an eye on new educational methods, interested in securing a skilled workforce with a sense of civic duty. His connections in Germany put him in touch Dr Georg Kerschensteiner, Munich’s director of education, who was introducing a system based on practical learning, vocational training and training for citizenship. Every subject – mathematics, geography, history, civics – was to be related to practical work. Best was keen to to apply the system to Birmingham.
As a member of the management committee of the Birmingham School of Art, Best came into conflict with its head, Robert Catterson-Smith. Best was an enlightened capitalist and a follower of Joseph Chamberlain. Catterson-Smith was an artist and a socialist. Catterson-Smith was a member of the Art Workers Guild and an associate of William Morris. He had worked with Morris on the Kelmscott Chaucer, copying Burne-Jones’s drawing and transferring them to woodcuts. The extent of his involvement was not appreciated at the time and was never publicly acknowledged by Morris, but it is now thought to have been considerable.
Birmingham had been the first city to set up an art school following arts and crafts precepts, favouring working in materials over regimented drawing. The Catterson-Smith system was observation and drawing from memory, to which end he kept animals in the school. Best did not have a high opinion of the school and Brass Chandelier records their differences. Best wanted designers who knew about styles. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze,” he wrote, “and he hands me a rabbit.”
Catterson-Smith’s dislike of machinery and business was bound to be a source of disagreement with Best. He deprecated copying, but Best could not see why a beautiful picture should not be reproduced. Catterson-Smith replied, “Because it is done for profit and would destroy original effort.” Best teased him with the observation that Morris did not like his assistants adding original touches, and he could not see why taking profit was any worse than taking a salary. Best was hopeful that within a generation there would be significant improvements in education. Catterson-Smith was more pessimistic, lamenting that parents, youths and employers have all been polluted by profit-mongering.
Student drawings by Eileen Nesbit.
Kenneth Clark’s Practical Pottery and Ceramics, published in 1964, was one of the first modern manuals for pottery students. It was based on the ceramics course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in Southampton Row, where Clark had taught for several years, and it was one of a trio of books available in the decades after the war, along with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) and Dora Billington’s The Technique of Pottery (1962). Billington led the course at the Central and taught there for over thirty years, and her book was also based on its syllabus.
Student exercises by Gillian Lowndes.
For some reason, Clark’s book has been overlooked and is not mentioned in books on studio pottery, including two recent scholarly studies, Jeffrey Jones’s Studio Pottery in Britain 1900 – 2005 and Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding.
Practical Pottery and Ceramics was written when the Anglo-Oriental orthodoxy of Bernard Leach was at its height and it represented the opposite pole of studio pottery, centred on Southampton Row. It gives a valuable insight into the very different approach being followed there by the head of department, Gilbert Harding Green, and his team – Clark, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, Ian Auld, Ruth Duckworth and Richard Bateson.
Student work from the Central School of Art and Crafts.
Clark acknowledged the “sound tradition” that had been established by Leach and his followers, for whom truth to materials was of prime importance, but he looked forward to that tradition being extended to meet the needs and conditions of the present. He welcomed the influence of Picasso (whose foray into pottery Leach had dismissed out of hand):
During this period of change Picasso with his daring, invention, colour-sense and imagination, shattered and shocked the traditional potters with his experiments in ceramics. While his approach was obviously more that of the painter, he added fresh life and a new direction to ceramics, and from his activities stemmed many schools of thought and expression which flowed in the ‘fifties. Ceramists found that their values needed drastic revision, while at the same time they endeavoured to retain an openness of mind an integrity in the use of their materials.
As well as recording the techniques, methods and exercises being taught at the Central in the sxities, the book is invaluable for its illustrations of work by contemporary students, graduates and teachers – Eileen Nesbit (“a student”), Alan Caiger-Smith, Ann Wynn Reeves, Gillian Lowndes, Robin Welch, Ruth Duckworth, Gordon Baldwin, William Newland, James Tower, Nicholas Vergette, Kenneth Clark himself and several less well-known students who are, nevertheless, fully credited.
Ceramic sculpture by Ruth Duckworth and Gordon Baldwin, teachers at the Central.
A personal footnote. My A-level art teacher, Connie Passfield, bought the book when it came out and lent it to me. It was my first practical introduction to pottery. I left school that year and forgot to give it back. That’s the copy these illustrations are from.
William Morris’s rules for potters anticipated the practice of 20th century studio potters: “No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mould that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand,” he said. “All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned in a lathe, as is now the custom.”
Richard Lunn, who taught the first studio pottery course in a British art school, was not only indifferent to these principles but considered wheel-throwing to be old fashioned and undemocratic. “The machinery of today turns out hundreds of shapes where the old mode of throwing could only produce dozens. The potter’s wheel is a thing of the past so far as large quantities are concerned, and it is the large quantities that demand the designer’s attention now. To-day the art potter works or the millions instead of the comparatively few.”
A major concern in the Arts and Crafts movement was the proper relationship between designer and executant. When it was distant, it was thought to be damaging both to art and the welfare of the worker. Ruskin insisted that the workman should originate his own design, but for practical reasons arts-and-craft designers like Morris were bound to employ workmen to execute their designs and did not always acknowledge them. (Several William Morris wallpapers designs were printed by Jeffrey & Co.) The issues were well set out in a discussion between Lewis Foreman Day and Walter Crane. Day took the more pragmatic position, arguing that design and craftsmanship were specialised activities and that both would suffer if all craftsmen were compelled to originate their own designs and all designers were compelled to execute them. Crane, a socialist and a colleague of Morris, was more idealistic and seemed to envisage the possibility of a society based on handicrafts.
Lunn’s views were closer to Day’s than to Crane’s: “There is a great deal of nonsense talked about craftsmanship,” he said, “and I am afraid that if craftsmanship is not kept in its proper place it will usurp that of design in our schools; that is to say, it will take up that time that ought to be devoted to the principles of ornament and design. And I fear students of design will be tempted to neglect the serious studies by which a thorough mastery of their art is to be obtained. Get the knowledge of design first, for when a man sees clearly what he wants he will soon find a way to do it.”
The hazards of separating design from execution – for the product, the maker and society – was a persistent theme in Arts and Crafts discourse on manufacture, but the practicality of designers never delegating the execution of their designs to artisans and the desirability of executants making only what they had designed themselves was debatable. Ruskin’s injunction to “never encourage the manufacture of any article in which invention has no share” was certainly not applied to every item made by Morris & Co’s employees, and its implications were the subject of fierce debate between Walter Crane (who insisted on it) and Lewis Foreman Day (who thought it led to bad workmanship).
Although William Morris was a judge of the annual National Competition of Schools of Art, he did not have a detailed knowledge of art education and did not have a high opinion of art schools in general. He believed that everyone should learn to draw and thought it essential that the craftsman should be able to draw well enough for his trade, but he was opposed to the rigid and slavish system of drawing taught in the art schools of the time. He did not believe that design could be detached from making, and insisted that that the designer should have knowledge of his medium and that he should be able to work in it himself. Ideally, designer and craftsman should be one, and failing that, the small workshop was preferable to the large factory.
The government arts schools worked on the opposite principle. But their aversion to students working directly in materials did not only concern Morris and doubts emerged in in official circles as well. The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1884), to which Morris submitted evidence, agreed that art education should enable students to judge the suitability of their designs to the material in which it was to be executed.
This idea filtered through into art education and, by the end of the 19th century, men of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) were taking up posts in art schools (at first the municipal art schools that were not under government control) and were driving the reforms of art education. The first municipal school was Birmingham Art School (1885), which introduced training in executed design and which Crane praised for its achievements
Among AWG members, Crane became Master of Design of the Manchester School of Art and subsequently head of the Royal College of Art, Robert Catterson-Smith became the headmaster of the Birmingham Art School, W. R. Lethaby and George Frampton were inspectors and advisors to the London County Council’s education board and the first principals of the London County Council (LCC) Central School of Arts and Crafts (1896), and the potter W.B.Dalton became the first principal of the LCC’s Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts 1899, although he did not become a member of the AWG until 1908.
At the end of the 19th century the Royal College of Art was engaged principally in the training of art teachers, still using narrow and limited methods. It was said that “no system could be better calculated to produce untrained, narrow minded men.” John Sparkes, its principal from 1876 to 1898, fully recognised its deficiencies, but it was not until Walter Crane was put in charge in 1898 that reform really began in earnest. “As far as the existing constitution of the school and its relation to the Board of Education would allow,” Crane wrote, “I endeavoured to expand the range of studies, especially in the direction of Design and Handicraft; and in order to give the students some insight into the relation between design and material, I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of accomplished artists to give lectures, and demonstrations where possible, in their special crafts … . [T]he Royal College of Art has been entirely reorganised, and while its objects, the study of decorative art as well as the training of teachers, have been reasserted, the relation of all branches of decorative design to architecture has been emphasised in the establishment of an architectural school, directed by Professor Beresford Pite, through which all students pass in the five years’ course.”
The bureaucracy of the Department of Art and Science defeated Crane and he resigned after a year, but his reforms were implemented by his successor, Augustus Spencer. Spencer brought in W.R.Lethaby as professor of design, whose curriculum was intended to ensure that those who went on to be art teachers received a broad artistic education, experience of several crafts and competence in at least one.
I have been looking at Prof Toshio Kasumitsu’s dissertation British Industrialisation and Design 1830-1851, which I found my way to from Charles Saumaurez Smith’s blog, in which he thanked Kasumitsu for his eloquent support for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
In this interesting thesis he shows that early ideas of “craft”, “skill”, “art” and “mystery” were associated with protective guilds and the apprenticeship system and that they indicated a deep understanding of a trade. Adam Smith, who believed that long apprenticeships protected the trades and the masters and disadvantaged the public, moved “skill” towards ideas of manual dexterity, whereas previously it had a much richer meaning. In Smith’s thinking, skill in this sense could be imparted in much shorter training programmes. It became closer to ideas of “competence”, which motivate modern vocational training .
I wondered whether the elevation of craft in the thinking of Ruskin, Morris and their followers was associated with an archaic and protectionist concept of arts and trades, and whether their resistance to new methods of organising work and production favoured the tradesman over the consumer? That was the effect of Morris’s business practice, which was incapable of producing products cheaply, and there was an irreconcilable contradiction in his philosophy between between the idea of a craft-based economy and the idea of a society where everyone could lead a life of modest prosperity.
By the mid-19th century it was already supposed that design had deteriorated because of the separation of the “fine” from the “decorative” arts, leading to the debasement of the latter. This view persisted for a hundred years and the cause of the separation was frequently attributed to the factory system and the division of labour. They may have reinforced it but they cannot be said to have caused it, because it began centuries before the industrial revolution and was associated with the Renaissance conception of the liberal arts as distinct from the crafts and with the attempt of fine artists to elevate their social status.
It is also questionable whether the separation of art into “fine” and “decorative” necessarily depresses design. By the end of the 19th century the Arts and Crafts style had thoroughly permeated manufacturing industry and it dominated domestic goods for 20 years after Morris’s death. Some of the designs made in this period were by fine artists but not all were. The furniture painted by Morris and Burne-Jones may be said to be fine art applied to manufacture, but what of the work of pioneering industrial designers like Christopher Dresser, W. A. S. Benson and Lewis Foreman Day? The design of manufactured goods is dependent on the adequate selection and training of designers rather than on the inclusion of fine artists in the manufacturing process or erasing the distinction between the two.
The low status of artisan designers the supposed deterioration of design were generally elided in critiques of “bad design” and the latter was supposed to be a consequence of the former. But was it, and to what extent did other things cause it: 1) Indifference of the buying public to “good” design and preference for “bad” design? 2) The inadequate training of designers? 3) The expense of getting good design? All those things – bad taste, lack of education and the commercial motive – were blamed, but there there is evidence against all of them. 1) There were prolonged and strenuous attempts to elevate taste, from the efforts of Henry Cole (above) and William Morris to the Design Centre, and they appear to have had little effect in the view of their promoters. 2) The Schools of Design and their successors spent seventy years getting designers to study the best models but critiques of bad design persisted. 3) The argument from commerce was confused from the start, between claims that the profit motive pushed out good design and claims that businesses would do much better if only they made better-designed products.
After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.
Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.
Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.
The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.
Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.
Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.
Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.
Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.
From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.
The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.
Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.
Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24
Woolley and Wallis are offering a set of four Morris & Co. Sussex chairs from the house of Emery Walker in their sale on 6 October (above) with an estimated price of £400 to £600.
The Sussex range, based on traditional country furniture, was intended to be cheap and simple, very much in line with Morris’s principles. The V&A say that Morris used Sussex chairs himself in Red House and Kelmscott House. Burne-Jones had Sussex chairs in his studio and so did the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Sussex chairs were bought for students’ rooms in Newnham College, which was decorated in Arts and Crafts style, and for galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Other firms, notably Liberty & Co. and Heals, produced their own versions of the Sussex chair. Sussex chairs in various versions were made in very large numbers but they’re collectible and the sale estimate is reasonable.
In 1912 Morris & Co. were selling a Sussex chair for nine shillings and ninepence, which a skilled worker could buy after 13 hours work. Today a skilled worker – say a car auto worker – would have to work 10 hours to buy a chair in the Woolley and Wallis sale if the set sells for £600.
William Morris’s struggles over pricing are well known, with his famous complaint about being forced to cater for the swinish luxury of the rich. I’ve written before about the difference in price between goods designed with a view to simplicity and cheapness (where form followed function), like the Isokon Donkey, and the price of modern reproductions (where meaning follows form). There’s also a reproduction of the Sussex chair by Nafisi Studio, who make a beautiful modern version in coloured lacquers (below), retailing at £1,375 – about 11 days’ work for a car auto worker. Far from the swinish luxury of the rich but not quite Ikea.
One of the delights of William de Morgan’s novels is his sideswipes at followers of Causes, whom he knew well through his association with Suffragists and Spiritualists and his friendship with William Morris.
In Joseph Vance he satirises Aunt Isabella, who has “gone to a Congress of an Association for the Promotion or Suppression of some Virtue or Vice, I’m not sure which!” She is a believer in Homeopathy and collects weird, ineffectual remedies:
“‘It’s that nice prescription of Dr. Hillyer’s. It’s only a little Ammonia and Chlorodyne and Gentian and Bark, and nothing that can possibly hurt. And of course you won’t mind me, dear, no one does! But I’m sure you ought either to take something or let Dr. Hillyer see you.’”
She enquires about symptoms that only homeopaths know about:
“‘Itching in the nostrils. Titillation in the membranes of the nasal canal. Sensation as of centipedes on the occiput, or of a large heavy object in the glottis, accompanied with wheezing, snoring, or choking. Incessant sneezing. Metempsychosis and Asphyxia. Tendency to jump, start and use bad language. Sensation of a swarm of bees in the larynx. Caryatids.’ That’s just exactly what she read very loud to me and a policeman’s back, standing at our gate.”
And she insists that you swallow something she has prepared:
“When I came back from posting my letter found two tumblers of the Weakest possible grog with paper over them — one teaspoonful every four hours of each, alternately. She makes some concession to my feelings on the subject of High Dilutions, and (at great risk to myself, she says) allows me to have Mother-Tinctures. Hence the Alcohol, which has the same relation to real Grog that a glass of water too often has to beer, owing to previous associations and ineffectual dry rubs.
“I wouldn’t nag on this way at poor Aunty, only she really did aggravate Papa.”
The toppling of the Colston statue brought to mind Saddam’s statue in Iraq, 2003, and Stalin’s in Budapest, 1956 – and then other episodes in which works or art were destroyed for what they represented. (Memorial statues, incidentally, are often bad and I would happily see the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station pulled down.)
Without much thought, I wrote on Facebook about the destruction of religious images in the English Commonwealth and the 1643 Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of church monuments that contravened the second commandment – and that on top of the iconoclasm of a hundred years previous. For many years, I said, Cromwell’s soldiers had visited churches to destroy pictures, crosses, stained glass, altar rails and rood screens. If you want to see medieval Christian art you have to go to the continent, and not just to Catholic countries because even Lutherans didn’t go in for vandalism the way that English Puritans did.
Nick Rowling, an art historian who knows more about it than I do, put me right. Cromwell’s bad press seems to stem partly from William Dowsing, an active iconoclast in Suffolk. Dowsing fixed upon Popish relics in the Cambridge colleges, foreshadowing the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford:
“now we have an army at Cambridge it might be a fitt time to write to ye Vice Chancellor of Cambridge & Mayor to pull down all ther blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery according to the ordinances o’ parliament.”
But Dowsing was not typical of the Commonwealth. This is what Nick said:
Sadly, Marshall, you are merely perpetuating a Royalist myth about Oliver Cromwell. The great period of ecclesiastical iconoclasm occurred during the reign of Edward VI and was directed by Thomas Cromwell (no relation). This stopped after Mary became queen.
Under Elizabeth many churches fell into decay but in Catholic (recusant) parts of the country much medieval art was saved. The real problem was that most of the great buildings – especially the monasteries were sold to the vast army of Protestant lawyers who financed the protestant revolution and the stones and lead were sold for scrap. These were the ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ referred to in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.
Everything changed when Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I and he did a great deal to protect, preserve and restore the fabric of many English churches and cathedrals though by then most of the artistic treasures of the medieval monasteries had disappeared.
Oliver Cromwell seems to have been totally indifferent to church worship, saying that God could just as well be worshiped in a barn, but he did issue explicit commands that damaging churches was a capital offence. And it is thanks to General Fairfax that the glorious glass of York Minster, for example, was preserved after the Battle of Marston Moor, when the Parliamentary army was prevented from sacking the city of York.
For the next two hundred years church and cathedral buildings simply decayed, and it wasn’t until the Victorian period and the agitation of high church revivalists like Pugin that anything was done to restore medieval architecture, but the problem is that church ‘restoration’ was in the hands of cultural barbarians like George Gilbert Scott – architects who actually destroyed some of the greatest surviving works of medieval architecture under the claim that they were restoring and ‘improving’ it! And if it hadn’t been for William Morris who was so shocked and appalled when he passed through Burford and saw what the ecclesiastical vandals were doing that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Since then, thankfully, much of what was thought to be lost has been uncovered again behind later tombs or under whitewash: glass has been found, sculpture has been identified in English country houses, and some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval art were opened to the public for the first time. The best example of this are the Royal Chapels in Westminster Abbey which were preserved intact because they were not places of public worship but the property of the crown.
How do I know all this? Well, about thirty years ago I was commissioned by the BBC to make a programme about this very question – it was called The God that Rules (BBC2/Open University, 1984) – and what astonished us when we began to research it was just how much medieval art has survived if you know where to look for it, and how the myth that Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the iconoclasm is simply untrue.
We really looked hard to find the evidence that Oliver Cromwell was an iconoclast, but it simply isn’t there. What we did discover almost everywhere were modern guidebooks blaming the destruction on ‘Cromwell’ but they were clearly confusing Oliver with Thomas. And I am certain that much of Ely survived because Oliver Cromwell was MP for Ely – further evidence that he wasn’t an iconoclast.
Another thing we learned was that medieval art was very much ‘an international style’ and that artists and works of art traveled all over Europe. For example, almost every stone screen in England was destroyed but there is a wonderful example of English craftsmanship remaining in Trondheim Cathedral, which appears to have been made by Canterbury craftsmen and then exported to Norway in the 12th century. And Nottingham alabaster sculptures were also exported all over Europe – there is a wonderful collection for example in the Bargello in Florence.
In the end we found that we had so much material to choose from to make our programme that we confined ourselves to just four ecclesiastical buildings. But one thing which still amuses me is that we had a reputation of being a gang of marxist anarchists, and BBC management kept on trying to censor our programmes, but we were absolutely scrupulous in only quoting 17th century voices – Milton, Cromwell, Winstanley, and of course the Bible itself – so we got away with it!