A historic building like Westminster Abbey may project permanence and stability but in fact requires constant and close attention and very careful restoration and renovation which constantly has to balance the use of suitable, sympathetic materials and the need to maintain historical authenticity with the sheer practical urgency of ensuring the building and its fabric does not collapse or decay. Surely no period in its history can have presented more of a challenge than the twentieth century with its two world wars and the ferocious bombing of the Blitz. Reading the reports of the Surveyors we can see the magnitude of their responsibilities – and perhaps realise how lucky we are that the Abbey still stands as glorious as ever.
“Westminster Abbey is falling down” wrote Hollywood actress Greer Garson in 1954. This was not strictly true but she was one of many worldwide supporters of the appeal to clean and restore the Abbey at this period. The annual reports of the Surveyor of the Fabric at the Abbey chronicle in detail the massive task of dealing with beetle damaged roof timbers, crumbling stonework and soot encrusted brown walls. In all 115 new oak trusses had to be put in the nave roof. The timber roof of the historic Jerusalem Chamber within the Deanery might have collapsed due to the ravages of death watch beetle. There was some controversy about replacing older timbers, especially in the roof of the apse. This was the most extensive internal restoration work undertaken since the time when Sir Christopher Wren was Surveyor. The many monuments from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were cleaned and re-painted to add vibrant colour to the chapels. The large organ cases were elaborately gilt and decorated. By 1965 the Abbey interior was looking much as it must have done when first built by Henry III.
This second volume about the work of the Abbey Surveyors continues the account of works undertaken from 1906. All Surveyors had to deal with the day to day maintenance of the fabric, monuments, official houses and neighbouring church of St Margaret’s Westminster, as well as the extra work of cleaning and restoration. W.R. Lethaby was instrumental in cleaning the medieval tombs to see again the original colours, more clearly visible under the new electric lights. His successor Sir Walter Tapper had to deal with repairs to Henry VII’s chapel after the fall of a pendant from the fan vaulted roof. There were still discoveries to make in the 1930s. Two magnificent and important 13th century wall paintings were found under dirt behind monuments to 18th century poets in the south transept. The tenure of the next Surveyor, Sir Charles Peers, was largely taken up by the Second World War and the need to evacuate hundreds of treasures, including the Coronation Chair, to country houses or cathedrals for safety. Hundreds of sandbags were used to protect immovable royal tombs and other decoration in the church. The historic Coronation Stone (Stone of Scone) was secretly hidden in case of invasion. Peers’ reports detail the air raids and bomb damage to the church and precincts and repairs after it. After the war the easternmost area of Henry VII’s chapel was set up to remember the RAF and Battle of Britain airmen. Stephen Dykes Bower could not commence his works until the coronation of 1953 was over and all the extra seating and decorations had been removed.
Some ideas put forward in the period covered by this book were not undertaken – a scheme for chapels for the Dominions in the triforium, moving some monuments to St John’s church Westminster, a new Cosmati mosaic work floor for the nave and a covered way linking the Abbey to St Margaret’s church.
The introduction to this volume is by the Abbey’s current Surveyor Ptolemy Dean who designed the new lift tower to the triforium galleries, the most recent addition to the Abbey fabric since 1745.
This guest post is written by Christine Reynolds, Assistant Keeper of Muniments, Westminster Abbey.