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John Scott and Chris Costelloe text the challenge of the 19th century interior


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Notes for a presentation by John Scott, Southern Buildings Committee Chair, The Victorian Society and C. Costelloe, Director, The Victorian Society. "The Challenge of the 19th Century Interior (or “That bit doesn’t matter, its only Victorian”)". The presentation was given at a conference session entitled "Debating Significance and Value"; this was part of a conference "Parish Church Interiors in Changing Times", supported by Historic England.

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John Scott and Chris Costelloe text the challenge of the 19th century interior

  1. 1. th THE CHALLENGE OF THE 19 CENTURY INTERIOR, or “That bit doesn’t matter….it’s only Victorian” The group here today has a sophisticated appreciation of 19th century churches, but this, The Ladybird Book of Churches and Cathedrals was an influential architectural text for a generation, and it states, and I quote: “ Another revival of earlier styles took place in the nineteenth century, but without much success…the result is often quaint and sometimes charming, but it was not good architecture” You may guess that that is not a sentiment the official position of the Victorian Society, but perhaps it is subliminally in the mind of the churchwarden of this small rural church (Stoodleigh) in mid Devon, which he described as “a lovely medieval village church completely ruined by the Victorians”. There is an alternative interpretation… it could be regarded as a gem of a complete church by Henry Woodyer, an architect of considerable reputation who applied his skills to design - as a piece - the building and all the fittings, right down to the door furniture highlighted by the current edition of Pevsner, and who commissioned the best providers for the glass (by Hardman) and other crafts. Looked at in that light, Woodyer selected the best features of the earlier building – the font, the arcade capitals and the carved wall plates depicting Green Men – and integrated them into his design. So here we have a church designed for 19th century forms of worship, a complete and integrated piece of design by a good architect, and a community that does not recognise it as of cultural worth. On a more positive analysis than that of Ladybird Books one of the singular legacies of the 19th Century is the parish church interior, small or large, that is this professionally designed, integrated whole…architecture, fittings, glass, decoration…. the whole piece. Moreover, it is not just the complete new churches of the period that achieve this unity of vision… more often than not the buildings we see now are the result of 19th century ‘restoration’ or reordering of earlier fabric, and many of these are no less unified and coherent in character. The Victorian parish church interiors of England and Wales are collectively one of the most extraordinary collections of architectural, artistic and craft endeavour in the world – I challenge you here to make momentarily a mental comparison with those of France - and it is a mystery to us why the appreciation of some of them by those in whose care they rest seems to lag behind the general reappraisal of other kinds of Victorian buildings. At worst we (as a nation) suspect the Victorians of sweeping away inconvenient earlier features, and sometimes the sensibilities of the architect towards the heritage were over- ridden by the less sensitive intentions of his client… but often a careful appraisal was made of the best of the inheritance, and the Victorian design was prepared as a setting for and a foil to it. The 19th century was the first era of professional design that did knowingly and analytically value the history of the building, the locality or the type (albeit through a Victorian lens which we would not now use) and both use fabric and take design cues from them with the objective of creating a coherent and beautiful new design. Scott’s surviving letter to the Vicar of this church (Stowford in Devon) sets out his thinking in doing just that, and of one feature he says: “Although I am aware that you consider this a defect, I cannot but view it as a point of interest which it would be a pity to remove, and I would therefore strongly urge that this link with the history of the church be allowed to remain. The issue here is not the differentiation of medieval and Victorian fabric, or speculation as to what earlier features failed to make the cut, it is that whether or not they have been starting from scratch the 19th century architects have created a unified piece of design, beautiful on
  2. 2. their terms. They have used or retained features of various earlier periods, and have often rooted their own design work in the language of the building and its locality. Alongside the clarity of the 19th century liturgical agenda it is perhaps this whole-ness, this very integration, that makes them such a challenge for their users and keepers in a changing world. We are told that this legacy gives licence to be as uncompromising as they were; and that in enabling diversification of use we are returning our churches to an idyllic and perhaps mythical earlier period. All of this misses a (if not the) point….that what we inherit now is very different from what the Victorians inherited then. We have to deal with what we have, and at the moment we seem to be prepared to risk irrevocably and (we contend) unnecessarily degrading this collective treasure. The relatively unusual, if contentious, complete reordering of churches for huge and highly resourced worshipping communities to whom they are entirely unsuited is a challenge we are going to leave for a different presentation, because the issues are usually so polarised that no satisfactory compromise can be achieved! Even some of the great set pieces of 19th century interior fittings are not immune to sweeping intervention, and there are two on the Victorian Society casework list at the moment. The same issues emerge in smaller and superficially less contentious projects, and these can and will in time result in an equally damaging and much more widespread erosion of the historic character of our churches. This is not an argument that change should not take place, but a plea that it should be managed much better than it often is at the moment. What we are concerned with in this paper is the reordering - in whole or in part - of interiors which owe their character to the work of the 19th century; usually with the intention of enabling diversification of liturgy and use which will sustain the survival of the church in a community. What is most challenged by this is the character of the smaller parish church, like the one with which I started but extending to buildings of lesser design pedigree but equal charm. The atmosphere and character of many churches like this is clear if intangible. It is also fragile, and it can be destroyed by the small, well intentioned but jarring intervention just as completely as by wholesale reordering. We may not be able to reach that churchwarden, or indeed anyone adhering to the Ladybird Books commentary on architectural history, to convince him that he has in his care a top- notch 19th century church rather than what may have been a not very distinguished medieval one, so we should presumably look to the professionals and above all to the ‘system’ to ensure a culture of greater respect for the 19th century contribution to church history. The Duffield Judgement, which set the framework under which we all now operate, makes it quite clear that the burden of proof of real need is very high to justify harm to heritage of significance, but this is often sidestepped by an assertion that the heritage affected (taken in isolation) is not particularly significant, coupled with a very broad interpretation of ‘need’, and supported by church authorities willing to prioritise things other than heritage protection. If we are to manage our 19th century (or indeed any other) heritage in a more sensitive way we have to achieve a culture and process in which assessments of significance are both objective and dispassionate. Many appear to be written to support decisions already taken, rather than being the first thing done and then used as a tool in making the decisions as we know they should be. How often is the appraisal also burdened with antiquarian prejudice that leaves the 19th century layer undervalued? Inadequate assessments that regularly form the
  3. 3. basis of decisions in the faculty system would not be accepted in the secular world of Listed Building Consent. Some considerable effort and discussion here has gone into the task of appraising the significance of pews and other features, and we would like to make the case for additionally assessing the character and significance of the whole. Identifying what is and is not individually significant in order to cherry-pick what should be retained or discarded can result in the unhappy neglect of the overall concept and character, and the removal of lower status fittings that provide the context for the obviously higher status ones which are then left diminished by their new less sympathetic context. It is rare that the Victorian Society sees documents that appraise things by their contribution to the whole, as well as by their individual merits, even to the extent the Scott did at Stowford before writing his letter to the incumbent. It may be the sheer quantity of 19th century work that clouds our nationally corporate judgement. The individual pieces of an 18th century set of box pews are no more (indeed usually less) distinguished pieces of joinery than their 19th century equivalent but they are seen to be almost sacrosanct while Victorian interiors are up for grabs – but even 12,000 19th century interiors will be devalued stock if 11,500 of them have been messed up! We would put it to you that the majority of these church buildings are not as inimical to changes of use patterns as they are often assumed to be? Let us be positive, and look at how might achieve a better result, and even how we might learn from our 19th century forebears whose work appears to be such a challenge? We can value what we have inherited. Like Scott, Woodyer and their ilk we can benefit today by looking at the features of any church interior as potential assets rather than potential encumbrances. We can think more creatively about the ways in which good fittings can be embraced and given new or refreshed use rather than cast aside or treated as exhibits. If we allow it to do so the building and retained fittings can give order to our activities as well as the activities imposing order on the building. Like them we could design with the objective of perpetuating the best of the character in an interior that has it (and indeed of enhancing where it doesn’t). This could involve the adaptation of existing fittings to new use… possibilities include turning fixed pews into movable benches, moving some but not all of the seating and above all not treating pew retention vs pew removal as a binary question. The recent Consistory Court judgement at Evesham is a case in point. Alternatively it can involve the design or selection of new fittings in sympathy with their surroundings. In this example the introduction of purpose-designed movable benches allows the church to be used for a range of community activities, but to revert to an organised arrangement when in repose, maintaining the best of the historic character of the church. We can if we wish avoid introducing furniture that jars with the surroundings. If we deem the consistency or character of the building worthy of our attention, its survival will depend as much on what is added as it does on what is taken away. It should be a general principle that any new fittings are equal in quality to those that they replace; otherwise the interest and significance of our historic churches will steadily diminish - but that in itself will not make interventions sensitive. Colour is often critical, as is a recognition of the effect of less significant features on the appreciation of more significant ones.
  4. 4. We could emulate them in trying to make the practical beautiful: We might not want to raise every bootscraper to the dizzy architectural heights of this one (at Daylesford) by Pearson, but every little piece has the potential, if we choose, to contribute delight. The 19th century architect was designing for practicality just as is the architect of today, and often the most ingenious aspects of 19th century design are those which engage with a particular practical matter. At Chudleigh Knighton, a church by Scott with fittings by Robert Medley Fulford, the book rest acts as a lectern with the screen gates closed, but as a bookrest to the priests stall when they are open. What went with that was a striving for beauty… admittedly of a Victorian sort… and it seems too often that that is no longer the same priority. The Victorian Society we sees a lot of proposed alterations for churches (some 600 notifications last year) and the nature of the new work is more often than not utilitarian in design and domestic in character. Such interventions are typically very harsh on the unity I have just been exploring, even if some features deemed significant are retained as exhibits. It is often the realisation rather than the principle that poses the problem. It is surely not inevitable that we lose the numinous, or even the atmospheric, by effecting change. We can aim to replace order with order, rather than substituting it with disorder. Here (at Sidmouth) a complete reordering has involved the introduction of new movable benches in place of the undistinguished Victorian pews, allowing some flexibility, which has proved very liberating in terms of church use… but conversely here where the west end of the church is a jumble of café tables, sofas and a pool table, the order of a previous liturgical era has been replaced with a character rather less at ease with the historic building around it, the historic fittings that remain echoing the future fate of the heritage assets in Osbert Lancaster’s fictional town of Draynefleet…. isolated and shorn of their historic context. It doesn’t even need to be so comprehensive to be harmful. In this depressingly typical example only about a third of the pews have been removed, to create flexible ‘fellowship’ space at the back, but the rubbish that fills the space instead of the pews has a devastating effect on the quality of the interior (which looking the other way is not at all bad, but the first thing you see is the worst). We can seriously scrutinise the all-consuming passion for flexibility. Few architectural challenges are greater than that of creating architecture out of multi-flexi-space. To demand total flexibility ‘just in case’ is also a lazy response. How often if at all is it really essential to clear everything away? Is this really the right place to be doing the things which do require that? How much of the need is met by being able to move some, rather than all of the furniture? …and how much less harmful would that be? Above all, we conclude from scrutiny of literally hundreds of cases a year at the Victorian Society that some 80% of the harm is caused by meeting perhaps the last 20% of the perceived need, and that with an adjustment to how we broker the compromise between the need and the constraints we could, with imagination, sensitive design and the empathy urged on us by one of yesterday’s speakers, meet 80% of the need while causing 20% of the harm and in doing so largely avoiding the conflict that too often goes with church reordering projects. That 80% may not enable every use that the community can dream up for the building, but we suggest that in most cases it has a chance of enabling enough to sustain its survival in a community that recognises its value. References: ‘Ladybird Books: The Story of our Churches and Cathedrals’
  5. 5. Osbert Lancaster: “Draynefleet Revealed” Manuscript letter from Sir Gilbert Scott to the incumbent of Stowford Church courtesy Simon Cartlidge. Photograph credits: Oliver West & John Scott Architects Hugh Harrison Simon Cartlidge Architect The Victorian Society Pat Smethurst