William Morris as Historical Preservationist : The Origins, Development, and Impact of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings

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Skoski, Joseph R.
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William Morris's attitudes toward the past had a decisive impact on his design, writing, and politics. Well deserved attention has frequently been given to these pursuits; he was definitely one of the most intriguing, multi-dimensional figures of the Victorian age. An important and often overlooked area of his work, though, concerns his contributions to our modern notion of historical preservation. In 1877 Morris played a key role in the establishment of the first historical preservation society, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This organization, dubbed the "Anti-Scrape," fought against a common practice in Victorian Britain: the systematic and complete reconstruction and renovation of ancient and medieval edifices. The term "Anti-Scrape" referred to the society's firm commitment to preserving the existing interior and exterior details of historic buildings; the society urged that only the minimum number of repairs necessary to keep out the elements be done on such structures. The emergence of the S.P.A.B. was clearly associated with the historicism that prevailed in Victorian Britain: an increasing interest in origins, antiquity, and the formal study of history in an attempt to uncover what actually happened in the past. Due to this intensified public interest in history, one might believe that the founding of the S.P.A.B. was an inevitable occurrence. Perhaps the appearance of such a society does not even sound all that exciting or significant to our ears. After all, historical preservation societies are commonplace today. However, the situation in Morris's day was anything but dull and must be more carefully scrutinized. Morris must be considered within the context of his times and the society and culture of his age. He lived from 1834 to 1896 amidst the rapid, unprecedented changes in English life that accompanied urbanization and industrialization. In essence, he was surrounded by a shrinking historical heritage. Buildings of historical interest, however, were not only threatened by commercial, industrial, and urban development, but after the late eighteenth century and at an accelerated rate throughout the nineteenth century were also altered by the progenitors of the Gothic Revival as well. As Jane Fawcett noted: "One of the ironies of the Gothic Revival is that it largely destroyed the very buildings from which it drew its inspiration." The primary objective of this thesis will be to emphasize Morris's role in the early days of the S.P.A.B.; without his initial dedication and energy, the historical preservationist movement might not have taken hold as successfully as it did. In addition, I will stress the enduring nature of Morris's preservationist ideology and its impact. Although a number of the S.P.A.B.'s early cases involved medieval churches and cathedrals, the Society from its inception was not a protection society concerned merely with the architecture of the Middle Ages. Morris's conception of historical preservation was infused with the ideas of the art critic, writer, and theoretician John Ruskin. Despite the fact that Morris, like Ruskin, was a medievalist who was drawn to the aesthetics of Gothic structures, he nevertheless made the scope of the Society as broad as possible. Our modern notion of historical preservation is part of the legacy of Morris's society and its pioneering work. The S.P.A.B. remains in existence today and continues to uphold Morris's ideals. However, to grasp fully the significance and impact of the S.P.A.B.'s early history, one must understand the effect of the medieval past on Morris and the climate of restoration that prevailed during his lifetime. Morris was not only influenced by the tide of romantic medievalism in nineteenth-century Britain but also by a number of his contemporaries including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Karl Marx. Many events in his personal life affected his attitudes toward the past and his ensuing activities as well. Key biographical elements, then, will be treated to show how his attitudes toward the past progressed throughout his life and thus shaped his outlook on historical preservation.
iii, 139 p.
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