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William Morris and the Founding of the Building Conservation Movement

William Morris and the Founding of the Building Conservation Movement

Lecture by Philip Venning FSA

To coincide with a major project at William Morris’s former home, Kelmscott in Oxfordshire, the lecture will look at his seminal role in founding the voluntary building conservation movement in the UK. Because of his many other achievements this central part of his life is barely known.

In setting up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877 he did much more than create a vocal protest group. With the architect Philip Webb he propounded building conservation principles that underlie not just UK law and practices today but influenced international charters such as the Charter of Venice.

Few people realise how much time he devoted to the SPAB. Between 1877 and his death in 1896 he attended about 450 committee and other meetings; visited threatened buildings; wrote protest letters; lobbied Parliament; lectured and campaigned.

His first biographer Aymer Vallance (authorised by Morris shortly before his death) wrote: “Had Mr Morris been asked which one on preference to any other of his undertakings he considered his greatest and best, he would have had no hesitation in naming the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings… and it is hardly possible to lay too much stress on this department of Mr Morris’s work, or to overrate the importance he himself attached to it… No cause was dearer to his heart than this; and this it is which everyone desiring to interpret aright William Morris’s life’s work must place first in any memorial of him.”

The lecture will describe the origins of the SPAB, a reaction against much damaging Victorian church restoration. This concern was first articulated by John Ruskin and the Society of Antiquaries in the mid 19th century. It will examine the founding SPAB Manifesto and the alternative, more conservative approach it proposed; and look at some specific cases and issues where Morris was personally involved. It will also refer to the major national campaign led by Morris against proposed restoration work at St Mark’s, Venice.

Finally it will touch briefly on the work of the SPAB today and the continuing influence of Morris’s ideas on historic buildings and building craftsmanship.


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