To screen, or not to screen?

17 November 2017

Michael Tavinor commemorates a controversy at Hereford Cathedral

Print no. 10810 from the Photocrom Print Collection/WIKI

As it was (though not in the beginning): Hereford screen in situ, 1863-1967. See gallery for more images

As it was (though not in the beginning): Hereford screen in situ, 1863-1967. See gallery for more images

JUST occasionally, the diocese of Hereford and its cathedral have caused ripples which have extended far beyond its rural pond. The appointment as bishop of two men considered by many to be heretics (Hampden in 1847, and Henson in 1917); the blatant omission of the Athanasian Creed on Easter Day in 1920; the Mappa Mundi débâcle in 1988-99: all these were causes of great controversy. And this year is the 50th anniversary of the storm surrounding the removal of the cathedral’s Victorian screen in 1967.

Screens were a sine qua non of medieval churches and cathedrals, but more recently they have been the subject of heated debates. Do they contribute to the mystery, or get in the way of worship?

In the 18th century, many screens were swept away — in Durham, Peterborough, and Hereford cathedrals, for example — in response to the Romantic ideal of an uninterrupted vista of the whole magnificent view. The influence of the Oxford Movement, however, encouraged some cathedral chapters to reinstate their screens. Several installed ironwork screens created by George Gilbert Scott in collaboration with the metalworker Francis Skidmore — in Lichfield (1861), Hereford (1862), Salisbury (1870), and Worcester (1873).

The Hereford screen was first exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862, in London, when it was hailed “the finest piece of modern work in existence . . . there is nothing . . . which will bear even a moment’s comparison.” Made from eight tons of iron, copper, and brass, and lavished with more than 50,000 pieces of mosaic, enamel, and cut and polished stones, it was lauded by contemporary writers. The Illustrated London News considered it “the most noble work of modern times . . . [which] stands forth to the world as a monument of the surpassing skill of our land and our age”.


As early as 1875, however, there were problems. The ironwork was being corroded by the gaslight of the building, and even Scott himself had doubts about the suitability of the screen’s position, lamenting that it was “too loud and self-asserting for an English church”. Others questioned its liturgical use “in a church where the Protestant service is performed”. The public mood was changing, and, in 1897, a writer described the Hereford screen as “gorgeous but not so particularly artistic . . . a great deal too gaudy and glittering for its place”.


THE evolution of liturgical requirements continued in the first decades of the 20th century. As the eucharist increasingly became the central act of worship, screens were “in the way”. At Hereford, references were made as early as 1934 to the possible removal of the screen, but, while the bishop described it as “a great many shams”, the dean was clear that the debate was “too much an issue of national importance to allow ourselves to be guided by local opinion”.

He was right; and tensions escalated, for and against. While some damned the screen as “a real obstacle to worship”, others saw it as a fine specimen of Victorian art, alongside Scott’s Midland Hotel at St Pancras, and the Albert Memorial in South Kensington — structures which, at that time, were similarly threatened. “Anti-screen fever” developed: Salisbury’s screen was deemed “a halt to one’s vision”, and, in 1960, removed to be sold as scrap metal.


HEREFORD made the decision to remove its screen in 1964, “on aesthetic grounds, and in view of the heavy expenditure necessary for its cleaning and repair”. In this they were encouraged by the possible sale of the screen to the Herbert Art Gallery, in Coventry, as the centrepiece for an intended Museum of Industry.

From the start, there was opposition. In an article, “Hereford’s Pride and the Destroyers”, the architectural correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh, called the proposed removal of the screen “one of the most senseless acts of contemporary iconoclasm”. More judicious in his criticism was the Dean of Gloucester, Seiriol Evans, who accused Hereford of “ritual and architectural nonsense”, turning the nave and choir “into one large room for the occasional large service”.

Other heavyweights ventured their opinions, including Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman. Curiously, the latter seems to have completely misunderstood the purpose of Victorian screens, arguing that they “enabled clergy and choir to sing the daily offices undisturbed by visitors and pilgrims on their way to the shrines at the east end”. Not in 19th-century Hereford, I think.

Nor was the screen without its detractors. Canon Dawson of Salisbury, who had successfully removed the screen there, described Hereford’s screen as a work of “spiky, blatant vulgarity”, and as “a purely Victorian fabrication, which was a mistake when it was put up and is a mistake now”. The architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor reassured the Dean that he had long considered that “whatever may be the somewhat macabre merits of this screen . . . it was no asset to Hereford.”


REMOVAL of the screen finally took place at dead of night on 6 February 1967. Contemporary news reports suggested that “local people will know that the controversy this event caused was much greater in London than in Hereford”; but the Dean, Robin Peel Price, was reportedly left “a broken man”, and he resigned the following year.

The screen’s 14,000 component parts were packed in newspaper and straw, placed in crates, and delivered to the Herbert Gallery. By the 1970s, however, it was clear that Coventry’s intention to preserve the screen in its own museum would not be realised. Fresh controversy ensued; and, in 1979, the Birmingham Evening Mail reported that local city councillors were “trying to decide what to do with their massively elaborate choir screen”, and were considering a range of options, including its sale to the United States.

Finally, Coventry Council sought the advice of the Victoria and Albert Museum, pleading that the screen should be housed “in more appropriate premises before it begins to suffer unduly”. At last, in 1983, the screen was officially transferred to the possession of the V&A, in a formal gift declaration. The crates were deposited in the museum’s warehouse in Battersea, where they were to remain for almost 20 years.

In the 1990s, the restoration of the V&A’s National Ironwork galleries gave new impetus. Thus began the most expensive fund-raising campaign ever mounted by the V&A for the restoration of a single object. About £850,000 was needed, and a further £25,000 for the associated lighting scheme. By 1999, the necessary funds had been raised, and the restoration, reassembly, and re-display of the screen was carried out.

Thus, on Ascension Day, 24 May 2001 — almost four decades after its removal from Hereford Cathedral — the restored screen was unveiled. Building Conservation praised the screen’s situation, which “jars fantastically well with the other more sombre exhibits within the Ironwork Galleries”.


WHAT of today? Sometimes, I’m asked if I would like the screen back in Hereford. No. “What, not even with your renowned partiality for bling?” Absolutely not. We’ve moved on, and the focus is now on the central altar — the place, week by week, of the cathedral eucharist. Above the central altar is a Corona by Simon Beer (1992), in memory of Bishop John Eastaugh; in addition to providing an image of glory above the altar, this also serves as a visual division between nave and chancel — perhaps even in the way that the Victorian screen did.


Hereford’s screen looks splendid in the V&A, standing sentinel above the foyer; and, in many ways, this is where it should be: an exhibit, among many other marvels of craftsmanship — the very purpose of the 1862 exhibition, at which it was first seen. In so many ways, it was not a liturgical screen at all, but a magnificent confection.

What of cathedrals that have screens? Let them stay, and let them be used creatively. I have seen magnificent liturgies at York and Gloucester where — far from being a barrier — the screen has introduced a great note of drama; and, of course, Lichfield and Worcester still have their Victorian screens. It is one thing, however, to use what is there, and quite another to have such an object reinstated today.


THE story ends happily. In 2011, a group of the Friends of Hereford Cathedral paid a visit to the V&A, where they heard a fascinating talk on the screen by the keeper of metalwork. Joining the gathering was the then-director of the Victorian Society, Ian Dungavell. His presence there with the Dean of Hereford was, I think, a symbolic rapprochement.

Even if it is still (as I understand it) the official policy of the Victorian Society that the screen should one day return to Hereford, both the society and the cathedral know that this is unlikely to happen. Instead, we were united in celebration of this splendid object, in the place where it should be.


The Very Revd Michael Tavinor is the Dean of Hereford.

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