Old, faded - but no, vicar, not throwaway

Instead of chucking out old works of art, let us abolish the institutio n that allows such sacrilege

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The other day I went to Sherborne Abbey in order to see for myself the "Mr Blobby" window, which is due to be dismantled and put in storage but which was recently shown to be by Augustus Pugin. I was curious about the story as it appeared in the press. The flesh parts of the figures in the window were said to have faded. Hence the alleged need for a replacement, although, if you think about it, our churches are full of somewhat indeterminate windows, many of them of great antiquity, some simple mosaics of old glass. And we live, anyway, with a great deal of faded art:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died

All Nature was degraded;

The King drop'd a tear into the

Queen's Ear

And all his Pictures Faded.

Faded, but were not thrown away. The green pigment in all of van Huysum's flower paintings has faded to blue, as has the green dye in practically every old tapestry. But we value these faded objects, just as we value statues without arms and legs. Time is unkind to many works of art.

I looked up at the Great West Window in Sherborne and thought: maybe I've made a mistake; maybe the Mr Blobby window is somewhere else in the church. For although indeed there was a great deal of fading, you could still see what the window was about - prophets and patriarchs - and the body colour of the glass made a pleasing effect.

So I asked the vicar, who was standing nearby, whether this was the right window, and why anyone should want to get rid of it. The Reverend Eric Woods began patiently to explain that the window was falling out anyway (something, I later learnt, which could easily be remedied) and that it was of extremely low quality. Indeed, perhaps not even by Pugin himself but by an assistant. In fact, it wasn't really a serious window at all, more a matter of decoration, like wallpaper.

If you had 150-year-old wallpaper in your house, said the vicar, you might well like it and want to keep it, but it didn't follow that the person who took over the house after you would want to do the same. I said: But this is different, isn't it? The vicar said (I'm quoting all this from memory): "Is it? Pugin designed wallpaper too. What's the difference?"

The logic of this so stunned me (Pugin also cut his toe-nails, but that doesn't mean that a stained glass window is a toe-nail) that I missed the oddness of his previous argument. Of course, if it was a matter of an ancient feature of a house, it would no doubt be protected. I wouldn't dream of taking over a house with Pugin wallpaper, or indeed a Pugin window, without finding out what its listed features were and what my duties were in relation to them.

But churches do not come under the same regulations as houses. They make their own rules, through the consistory courts. It was the chancellor of the diocese of Salisbury, Judge John Ellison, who made the judgment that allows the parishioners of Sherborne to remove this window.

We sometimes think that the great destruction of church art was a thing of the past, something to do with the Reformation or the Civil War. But Salisbury is the cathedral which had James Wyatt destroy its medieval glass in the 18th century: it was deliberately smashed up for the value of the lead.

Salisbury, too, is the cathedral which, in my lifetime, threw out its Gilbert Scott screen for scrap. Two of its gates are at the entrance to the Victoria & Albert Museum shop. The rest is either melted down or in someone's garden. And in the metalwork gallery of the V&A you can see fragments of Scott's Hereford screen, which that cathedral treated so badly it needs pounds 100,000 of restoration work before it can be reassembled. I remember well the hatred that Scott's screens aroused in two other cathedrals, Lichfield and Durham. Also I recall that Hereford was the cathedral that was prepared to sell the Mappa Mundi, which turned out later to be an altarpiece for which the cathedral still possessed the original frame, though they hadn't noticed.

All in all, the church does not have an unblemished record when it comes to heritage matters. One should never assume that the days of vandalism are over, that we live in a more enlightened age.

In Sherborne the church was given some money for the beautification of the building, and under the former vicar it was decided that the west window should be replaced. At the time it was not known for certain to be by Pugin (Pevsner says only "probably"), but it was known to be a part of the general Victorian restoration of the church, and therefore in harmony with the other windows (including another by Pugin), some paintwork and the organ, which came from the Great Exhibition.

That there had been a technical problem in the firing of the glass is not exceptional for the period - some of William Morris's glass suffered the same defect - but this did not stop the vandals of Sherborne from concocting a story, accepted by the consistory court, that the deficiencies of the Great West Window were to do with the fact that Pugin was overstretched and going mad at the time, and that the manufacturer of the glass was cutting corners. They were also successful in confusing the question of whether the glass could be restored to its former state with the quite separate question: could its decline be halted, or at least slowed down? The expert from the V&A said that restoration by re-firing would be inappropriate. This was gleefully taken to mean a thumbs down to the window itself. So, in the year after the V&A devoted an exhibition to the promulgation of Pugin's genius, the museum's authority has been hijacked for the opposite cause, condemning one of his works to the repository of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers. It can never again be seen in situ, and since it is a large window, 60ft high, that means it will never be seen again.

But what condemned the window was not just its physical condition but the fact that, in the judgement of the vicar and others, it had no modern meaning. The vicar told me: "The people of Sherborne want a speaking window. This is not a speaking window." And he told the court: "For young and old alike, the window has no 'message'. Indeed it is hard to imagine what 'message' 27 assorted Old Testament prophets and patriarchs were originally meant to convey."

The court, in a dreadfully argued judgment, accepted this cheap denigration of traditional iconography, just as it accepted the opinion of Dr Alan Doig, chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall, who said: "I believe the Sherborne community has lost confidence in this window." Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that the Sherborne community does not "lose confidence" in the abbey itself. And meanwhile, let's go ahead and abolish the consistory courts altogether, and bring our national heritage under national control.

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