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My First Experience of Volunteering at Somerset House and the Story of an Architectural Casualty

By Freddie Bond

I had my first Courtauld volunteering shift last week. The wealth of images and information in the collections stored under the brick vaults of Somerset House really is a sight to behold. Whilst on a tour to localise the new volunteers, I could see shelves that stretched as far as the eye could see and spotted a rack of red folders labelled “Kent” containing images of medieval churches near where I grew up. It was a strange sensation. Having come to university to escape the local area in which I live, to be faced with the familiarity of buildings I have seen daily evoked mixed emotions within myself. In this piece I will attempt to create a clear narrative of my appreciation and respect for these testaments of the past. The very fact that these buildings still stand underline the ideas of certainty which they evoke in me. They have survived iconoclasm, a changing climate and neglect. Yet these structures and the fact that they remain, built from hard work and determination, provide feelings of certainty in an uncertain time.

When I first walked down the steps into the brick vaulted cellars of Somerset House, an appreciation for the history I was surrounded by blew me away. The folders that the volunteers work hard to digitise have been seen by few and the whole goal of creating a space on the internet in which we can all have access to all these images is a goal worth reaching. In the Conway Collection, a collection of over a million photos detailing world architectural history have some exquisite pieces of photography. The tasks and the space in which they are held is peaceful, and the time spent archiving or photographing these images is mindful, in that the woes of the world and your own painful transitions melt away, and you are left engrossed in the images sat in front of you. It is a form of meditation, some of the volunteer’s jape. The effort of the conservation is staggering. For example, a folder containing images of masonry discovered during an archaeological dig in the 1970s at the Chapter House of St Alban’s Abbey (now lost) seemed to categorise every single piece of masonry found. The analogue black and white film used to photograph these pieces adds yet another layer of effort and time spent in conservation, through the developing process. Though at first glance it looked like a folder of pictures of weathered rocks, deciphering the detail in amongst the destruction brought out a new art historical beauty in these objects. It is easy to forget in the digital world of the instant picture and instant information, the number of hands that would have been involved in creating one image to be placed in a folder, in a box and to ultimately, as I understand, rarely see the light of day until now. I felt as though I was just another path on the journey these images have been through.

St Albans abbey In Hertfordshire has had its own difficult history. Perhaps one of the biggest fatalities of any large church in English architectural history, the Abbey was badly neglected since the reformation and then again, severely damaged by nineteenth century enthusiasts who literally cemented the idealised “Victorianised” medieval history onto its western front, in the form of an unsympathetic face lift. It is said that St Albans was used as a case study by William Morris when he created the “Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” in the 1870s (Ancient being used as a slightly loose term.) St Albans is just another example of the many lives these buildings have perused through history. I always wonder when I walk into a medieval church “If only these walls could talk,” as these buildings in their own geographical position often occupy older spaces of ancient Pagan worship, and have been a gathering space for the masses for hundreds of years. The changing usage of these buildings through time is another facet that intrigues me, as in St Alban’s case, it was a thriving monastery, an eyewitness to the Battles of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses, a prisoner of war camp, a ruin, and now ultimately a tourist destination.

St Albans suffered from poor building materials during its original journey as a Norman Abbey. Unlike the early Norman cathedrals of Canterbury and Norwich, it was not built in Caen stone. Its Mason, Robert the Mason, borrowed Roman techniques which were learned while gathering material from the ruins of the Roman town Verulamium locally. Like the Roman bricks seen in the chancel wall of the church of St Martin in Canterbury, this “hotchpotch” of materials in its own way, provides a certain individuality. Its 11th century Romanesque crossing tower is a triumph and the only one still standing in England today, a reflection of the efforts Mason Robert placed on strong foundations. It thrived as a monastic setting through the Medieval period, with all the trimmings of misbehaving monks, unpaid tithes, and the cult of the first British martyr, St Alban. However, after the reformation, the iconoclasm and the neglect that followed, the vast Abbey and its surrounding buildings fell into bad disrepair. It gained the namesake “Abbey Ruins” and was used as a prisoner of war camp during the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. Graffiti from this time still adorns the walls of the Abbey today. During the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, the unfashionable Gothic was swept aside to make way for the powerful colonial style of Neo-Classicism, prolonging the buildings’ neglect and disrepair.

In the nineteenth century, with the influx of the “Gothic Revival,” Victorian “restorers,” who in St Alban’s case, infamously did more harm than good to the ornamental integrity of the building and its architectural story. In my opinion, the restoration and inclusion of a pitched roof in addition to the western front marred the proportions and perspective of the magnificent Romanesque tower and the nave, which is the longest in the country. Having had the George Gilbert Scott treatment in the 1860s - like eight hundred and fifty other medieval buildings in Britain, Edmund Beckett, the first Baron of Grimthorpe oversaw the Abbey’s restoration in the 1880s and 1890s paying for it out of his own pocket. One of the many replacements they made, Grimthorpe had the original Perpendicular window in the North Transept demolished and replaced with a Rose Window of his own design. Furthermore, he had the great “Weathampstead” window on the western front removed and replaced with a poorly designed and unsympathetic Victorianised ideal. He did such a bad and expansive job that amongst the Victorian architectural elite, his name became a term used for a poor restoration, i.e., “doing a Grimthorpe.” Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian known for his monumental 46 volume series “The Buildings of England,” described Grimthorpe as a “pompous, righteous bully” which when one looks at the western front of St Alban’s and views the imposing, unsympathetic Grimthorpe reworking, the word “pompous” would certainly spring to mind. Though we cannot undo the follies of the Victorian restoration, now over one hundred years on, we must accept it as a piece of the buildings’ heritage and overall character.

To bring this full circle, there was I sat down in the cellar of Somerset House faced with the material history of the Chapter House, however irreparably damaged. It was an overwhelming feeling to be part of this building’s conservation, however small my part was. The masonry weathered and in poor condition were the last testaments to a troubled history. A history which now can be told with a certain ease, as with the crossing tower of the cathedral at Bury St Edmunds (completed in 2005), modern restoration of these medieval churches is in far more sympathetic hands than those Victorian efforts. I wonder what the original medieval builders of St Albans would think, the vast structure which they built for their God, still standing hundreds of years later, though now with a slightly different face.


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