Anyone with even a transient acquaintance with the life and works of William Morris will probably know that, inter multa alia, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, saying that ‘We are only the trustees for those who come after us.’ I have had the pleasure of visiting their present headquarters at 37 Spital Square more than once on the occasion of the annual (though sadly not this year!) Open Gardens of Spitalfields, but it occurred to me only quite recently that I ought to join.
I owe this prod to the Gentle Author, whose daily blog, posted through thick and thin (which most recently has included Covid-19), on life in London in general and Spitalfields in particular, never fails to provoke entertainment, astonishment, outrage at the sheer, appalling NERVE of developers, and a great deal of thought. He wrote the other day about a visit to the extraordinary St Andrew’s Chapel, Boxley, which is currently being gently restored under the care of SPAB, after decades (if not longer) of neglect. So I signed up to SPAB (properly, The SPAB, I suppose), and have just received my starter pack.
The SPAB, which Morris characteristically named ‘the anti-Scrape’ almost from the outset, was set up after a visit he had paid to Burford church in the Cotswolds on his way, with his family and the Burne-Joneses, to stay with his friend since Oxford days, Cormell Price, who had leased the Broadway Tower in the summer of 1876.
Morris was so appalled by the restoration works being carried out on the medieval church under the direction of George Edmund Street (in whose architectural office he himself had trained) that on arriving at the Tower he began to sketch out his ideas, derived (as Fiona MacCarthy points out in her incomparable biography) from the writings of Ruskin, for a society which would forward the aim of preserving rather than restoring ancient buildings: ‘Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. Watch an old building with anxious care … bind it together with iron where it loosens, stay it with timber where it declines.’ Possible unsightliness is preferable to the scraping away of the old and its replacement with a pastiche, however well executed.
This is a remarkably tactful manifesto for a man not exactly famous for tact: ‘Why, I could carve them better with my teeth!’, he said, on viewing some nineteenth-century ‘Gothic’ carvings in a cathedral. But the society got off the ground soon after, with Morris (who actually loathed any sort of admin, but came increasingly to take it on as a duty) as the honorary secretary (and treasurer pro tem.), and a large numbers of his friends and acquaintances (including Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Holman Hunt, Alma-Tadema and William de Morgan) among the membership (annual subscription 10/6d or half a guinea: quite a sum, whichever of the ‘relative worth’ tables you use).
The immediate focus was the rescue of churches from proposed restoration by the likes of Street and both George Gilbert Scotts. Working with Webb and George Wardle, Morris wrote to bishops and deans to seek their co-operation. In a letter to the great Thomas Carlyle, he explained his principle: ‘It seems to me not so much a question of whether we are to have old buildings or not, as whether they are to be old or sham old.’ Carlyle signed up.
The Society possibly became more famous in its early years for its 1879 campaign to prevent work on St Mark’s, Venice, which (after necessary repairs for subsidence) proposed to replace the thirteenth-century mosaics on the west façade. Possibly as a result of Morris’s own lack of tact, which resulted in Italian opposition to foreign interference, success was mixed, but at least some of the mosaics were preserved, and the planned replacement work ceased after 1880.
Back in England, the SPAB joined forces with the London County Council (inaugurated in 1889) to draw up the first list of historic buildings under its control, and when the National Trust was founded in 1895, its own policy for conservation rather than restoration followed that of the SPAB (of which Octavia Hill and Canon Rawnsley were early members).
In 1913, two major steps were taken: with the support of Lord Curzon (A Most Superior Person), the 27th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, Hon. Sec. of the SPAB, introduced a bill to Parliament, the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1913, which consolidated earlier legislation of 1882, 1900 and 1910, bringing the protection of everything from Bronze Age tumuli to eighteenth-century buildings of historic interest under one body, the Ancient Monuments Board, which by 1931 had given preservation orders to over 3,000 buildings (and their surrounding land where appropriate) and taken 200 into public ownership.
(Lord Crawford (1871–1940), by the way, was clearly an exemplary public servant: as well as serving in both Houses (he was an MP before he succeeded to the earldom), he was Chair of the National Art Collections Fund from 1903 to 1921, a trustee of the British Museum and the National Gallery, first Chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, Chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and chair of the committee which recommended the formation of the BBC in 1925. Even more remarkable, he volunteered for active service in 1915: lying about his age (he was 43) and his married status, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private and served in France until 1916, when he was summoned back to join the Cabinet as president of the Board of Agriculture, and made sure that Europe didn’t run out of bread.)
Also in 1913, Lord Curzon persuaded the Church of England to take a serious interest in the condition of its built heritage, with the result that Diocesan Advisory Committees were set up. But the SPAB’s interest was not in churches alone: for example, it surveyed wind- and watermills throughout the country in 1929, and today has a special Mills Section to encourage the conservation of mills, and their return to use when feasible. The Society was active in questioning the ‘slum clearance’ policies of the government in the 1930s, and even more so in protesting against the wholesale demolition of bomb-damaged areas after the war, and against the appalling examples of ‘re-development’ that have blighted the country since the 1960s.
It is depressing that it is still urgently needed as a pressure group today, but when you consider such outrages as the recent destruction of Norton Folgate (thank you, Boris Johnson), the planned overshadowing of the Trinity Almshouses at Mile End by Sainsbury’s, ditto at St Mary’s, Lambeth and the Garden Museum (to say nothing of local residents), and the proposed ‘conversion’ of the ancient but still perfectly viable Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a ‘bell-themed boutique hotel’ with a swimming pool on the roof (and this is just a small number of cases in London alone), the demand for the SPAB’s help is greater than ever – especially as Historic England, the current successor of the Ancient Monuments Board, seems to have completely lost sight of what its own job is.
So I’m looking forward to lectures and possibly a little hands-on repairing of things (under strict guidance!), and probably even more outraged emails to local authorities about everything from demolition to Ghastly Façadism (© the Gentle Author), but even if I don’t actually get round to doing anything, I’ll have sent a modest amount of money (almost certainly less than the original 10/6d) where it will do some good.