A fuss (and given we’re talking about architectural history here, you can imagine the sheer scale of said fuss) has lately been made over George Gilbert Scott. See, for example, the oaf that is Simon Jenkins do his level best to portray Scott as a victim of an incomprehensible miscarriage of historical justice. Jenkins’ major argument is that nobody’s yet written a biography of Scott; this may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t exactly make him an architectural pariah, weighted down as he was with those triple guarantors of obscurity, a knighthood, RIBA’s royal gold medal and being buried here.
Scott’s name was one of the first I learnt as an autodidact of architectural history. Difficult to remember exactly why one remembers something, but I suspect it had something to do with the name’s dynastic tendencies and trying not to get into a muddle over my Gileses and (multiple) Georges. Indeed, both Jenkins’ article (now corrected) and the Mirror (brava Kirsty Henley-Washford! We commend your architectural predilections if not your accuracy!) cocked up the lineage. Of course, I need not have bothered. That excruciatingly embarrassing faux pas never occurred; very few people have heard of George Gilbert Scott (or his progeny) because very few people have heard of any architect. And, yes – I realise that you (dear readers both) have heard of all the architects, but that’s because you’re special. Seriously, though, which Victorian architects are better known? I offer Charles Barry and Pugin, but only because they did this. Waterhouse, maybe. Butterfield? Blomfield? Street? Hardwick? I can barely remember what they built, and I actually care about these things. Sigh.
Of course, this is all due to a bicentenary and the trend-setting power of Google. More interesting to me than whether this man deserves a biography (what a dreckishly dull conceit to hang an article on!) is the architectural furore that Sir GGS provoked.
With the rise and rise of revivalism throughout the nineteenth century there was weighty debate about how to conserve older structures. Sir GGS took part more as a practitioner than a theoretician, it seems, though his thoughts are set out in his Plea for the Faithful Restoration of Our Ancient Churches, where he deplores the tendencies of so-called restorers who would seek to “destroy the truthfulness and genuine character” of these buildings. Sir GGS knew his stuff – he probably studied and restored more mediaeval cathedrals and churches than any other Victorian. But, in a similar vein to Eugene Viollet-le-Duc across the Channel, he was more interested in preserving the architectural spirit, shall we say, of these old buildings. OK, Viollet-le-Duc was perhaps a touch more vandally, seeking to make buildings better than they already were, or ever had been. Crazy mo fo. Sir GGS, however, still had the notion that a building could be true, that there was a definite character to it that he could decipher and imprint into his restoration.
It was Sir GGS’s proposals for restoring Tewkesbury Abbey that led to William Morris forming the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Eeshk. That’s a slap in th wotsits. To this day, should you wish to become a member of this illustrious group, you have to declare your allegiance to their manifesto, which reads as a faintly infuriated riposte to the simplistic and egotistic approach of Sir GGS and Viollet-le-Duc. So the issue mildly rumbles on. On the one hand, those who believe that we must make our restorations obvious, that there should be a material demarcation between the ancient and modern, that the addition of the new doesn’t necessitate the insult of the old but rather that only and constantly through time does a building acquire its totality of meaning. And on the other, those that believe that a building is an idea, that it inclines toward a Platonic form which – through understanding and inspiration – can be reached, that the provenance current materials don’t matter so much as the truth the building somehow declares. Oh, and then there’s most people who don’t give a flying buttress about the whole thing as long as it looks nice.
I do wonder whether there isn’t an honest and humble middle ground, that recognises that buildings change, that seeks to encapsulate, retain and even renew the aesthetic merits of an existing structure whilst questioning our own motives and spotting the easy slide into pastiche; that is confident enough in the modern to not make it a simple servant to the past, yet that acknowledges the limitations in our current stylistic tendencies. Oh cripes, that’s quite enough – I’m starting to feel a manifesto coming on…