SIR GEORGE GILBERT SCOTT

No story of the Hereford screen can be properly told without a preamble on the architect who designed three great cathedrals and three Altar Screens. Scott was a man of formidable energy, influence and achieved great success. He was born in 1811 and was a trained architect. He infuriated his teacher by sketching mediaeval buildings on the continent following the example of the great Augustus Pugin.

A tour of the glorious Cathedrals in Germany and France will clearly illustrate the beauty and inspiration that enthralled Scott with wonders of bright metalwork, incandescent polychrome mosaics and glass. He was to use such excellent ground work to magnificent effect.

We must all be well and truly thankful for the inquisitive travelling instinct of our great artists. It is the excitement of foreign travel by our native art lovers that has so deeply enriched our own built and decorated environment. The artist’s true work, it must be stressed is never to copy the work of others, but to seek inspiration from it. English design is often at its best and most admired when it adapts the concept of a foreign design, adding to it an extra element that results in a novel quality that is uniquely English and recognizable as English Art

THE HEREFORD SCREEN

We must thank God that it exists! The G.G. Scott screen that graced Salisbury Cathedral has gone for ever, broken and sold as scrap. (Two delightful and decorative fragments from the screen were on display at my talk, and one feels that given enormous energy and determination, a search in the antique shops of the Salisbury area might, one day, reveal more!)

Hereford’s screen was considered to be ‘one of the great monuments of High Victorian Art’ and even ‘A masterpiece of the Gothic Revival Style’. But TIMES CHANGE!
In the 1950’s after the decay of the 1930’s depression and devastation of World War II, the screen was considered a ‘gilded monstrosity’ and ‘a terrible example of Victorian vulgarity’ I have invented the term ‘Liturgical correctness’ to describe the love of open empty space which led to the removal of what was regarded as dirty, grimy, Victorian clutter. Of course the screen was, like most of Britain after the war, rather shabby and dusty, which was not surprising not having been cleaned or restored for over fifty or so years. Sadly the fashion, then as now, demanded white paint and de-clutter.

So in 1967 Henshaw’s of Edinburgh were instructed to dismantle it. The pieces were deposited in 46 crates in the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, with the intention of its installation in a new Industrial Museum. But….nothing happened. In 1984 the crates were removed and stored by the V&A in Battersea. There the crates remained for 28 years. Marion Campbell of the Metalwork Department had the honour of revealing the contents to Mr James Joll. Upon the opening of the crates he is thought to have repeated the exclamation given at the first sight of the contents of the tomb of Rameses!

The restoration task was said to be ‘an impossible dream’. The cost was £750,000 and the National Heritage fund gave £375,000 James Joll and Marion raised the rest. A huge stencil of black and white was installed in the V&A and promoted the whole project, which was fortunately successful … over a prolonged period. James said he would match any figure I gave and this he did. I felt passionately about the screen. Firstly I believe in the Holy mysteries; the altar is a solemn and sacred place; we may commune with our maker by gazing through the screen. Secondly, I adore Victorian polychrome metalwork.
The present location of the screen I find a particular delight. One is struck on entering the V&A by the colossal modern glass chandelier of Dale Chihuli. This stupendous creation marks the centre directly above the information desk.  Behind this bright splash of modernity stands the Hereford Screen – ‘The grandest and most triumphant achievement of modern architectural art. This happy juxtaposition of old and new is a feature to be encouraged, especially in Town planning; a particular pleasing example is I.M.Pei’s glass pyramid surrounded by the Louvre Museum in Paris. Three paces west of the screen, we can sit upon the spectacular metalwork bench of Albert Paley who is certainly one of the best metalworkers of the modern age.

The wondrous tale of the saving of the Hereford Screen impels me to consider the dreadful failure of other ‘saving operations’. Of course the 1939-1945 war was the major cause of destruction but it is worth investigating ‘efforts to save’ to analyse the reasons for their failure in order to avoid repetition and to consider how best to preserve and enhance our artistic and environmental heritage in future.

THE SALISBURY CATHEDRAL SCREEN

The cost of a stone screen was considered too expensive so £1,000 was agreed for a Scott / Skidmore design in metal. In the 1950’s ‘liturgical correctness’ resulted in the screen’s removal; in 1959 overnight and the screen was sold for scrap to a Mr. Bertram Shergold. The V&A  acquired the altar gates at a later date and these were installed in the entrance to the shop but are now in the ironwork gallery. Low railings and wrought iron panels were installed in the nearby parish church of St Mary, Alderbury, Wilts. The iron gates I remember well. Michael Whiteway, the leading dealer in Victorian gothic decorative art offered them to me. I just couldn’t find a space for them! The great cross surmounting the central archway now lies forgotten in the loft of the cathedral – a sacrilegious disaster of the 1950’s which be partially corrected if the present authorities at Salisbury could be persuaded to find the small space required for its display. Who will take up the cause?   

THE ALBERT MEMORIAL

This prominent sculpture was designed by Scott shortly after the Hereford screen and was celebrated for its ‘jewelled magnificence’. It cost £120,000. However, for over 80 years from a date prior to 1914 it was painted black. There is much information on Google, but few will remember the, in my view, outrageous alternative to its full restoration (at a cost of £11.2 million in the 1980’s) put before the public. Prime Minister John Major proposed another patch up job, the complete restoration or….demolition. The fact that such a course of action was even contemplated is a clear indication of the low regard for our heritage. As a personal note I recollect in the 1950’s asking my mother ‘Give me an example of bad taste in Architecture’. She barely hesitated and replied ‘The Albert Memorial’. She was probably only echoing the majority view of the day.

I hesitate to digress into the huge subject of preserving and enhancing our public domain; of progress versus preservation. That the current generation often despises the works of art of the preceding age is an accepted fact. This is a shame and sometimes a crime, but could so easily be overcome with a little foresight. Action need not be expensive and can be an ideal community building project – saving the vast variety of circular, cast-iron, coal-hole covers in pavements; or old granite horse and carriage troughs. It requires the public awareness, engagement and support but initially it needs leadership, personal dedication and drive. The Hereford Screen would not be available for the world to see and the V&A would be devoid of one of its greatest English treasures, were it not for the efforts of James Joll and those who supported him in this great endeavour.

Acknowledgments to Alicia Robinson and Marion Campbell and Brian Cargin.

J.S.M.Scott

THE HEREFORD SCREEN

A talk given to the Decorative Arts Society by J.S.M Scott at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 16th June 2012

The screen was erected in 1862; designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and constructed by Skidmore & Co Coventry.