Join us as we present to you a whole day of specially curated blog content from our Open Treasure team, as part of the BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine #MuseumFromHome event. We will be taking you on a virtual exploration of our current exhibition within Open Treasure, Restoration, Redesign, Renovation: Durham Cathedral in the 19th Century. At a time when you can’t visit our museum in person, we hope you enjoy this special series of digital highlights.

The Cathedral at the turn of the 19th century: James Wyatt and the ‘Hammer of Destruction’

In the late 18th century the Cathedral began to tackle the massive task of repairing its buildings, which were in a very poor state after two centuries of damage and neglect. These efforts led to dramatic changes to the interior and exterior of the church.

James Wyatt was appointed the cathedral’s consulting architect in 1795. His proposals aimed to open out the cathedral spaces, removing walls and anything else that might obstruct the plan, and to make certain changes requested by the Dean and Chapter.

His report on the Chapter House, built by Bishop Geoffrey Rufus in the 12th century, declared it to be derelict and proposed reducing its length by half. This alteration left it ‘a miserable remnant of a building’ that suffered under ‘the Hammer of Destruction’. Further plans would have seen modifications to several significant and historic parts of the cathedral: the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert, the Neville Screen, Bishop Hatfield’s tomb and the Bishop’s throne (or cathedra). Wyatt also planned to knock down the Galilee Chapel to create an extended road for carriages to the west of the Cathedral. This suggestion shocked many people, and after public protest the plan was dropped, along with several of Wyatt’s other proposals.

This is a handwritten financial record of the work James Wyatt did for the Cathedral in the 18th century. It mentions his plans for the Church with the intended alterations and the proposed replacement for the Neville Screen. His total bill came to £260 10s 0d.

Wyatt’s work at Durham and around the country later earned him the nickname ‘The Destroyer’. In fact, his taste for harmonious open spaces and lack of interest in preserving antiquities was in tune with most of his contemporaries and his architecture in high demand for country houses and cathedral restorations. The nickname also completely overlooks the fact that the actual decisions about his projects were made by other people. At Durham a lot of the work was carried out by the Cathedral architect and Clerk of Works, William Morpeth.

Some of the most radical alterations to the cathedral at this time had already taken place when Wyatt was appointed. Architect John Wooler and his assistant, Clerk of Works George Nicholson, had planned a colossal programme of repairs and alterations in 1777. To tackle the problem of badly decayed stonework, they decided to scrape or cut back 2-3 inches from many of the Cathedral’s walls. 1000 tons or so of stone was taken off the building!

Here’s a view of the Cathedral in 1809 after the various works described here had been carried out. It was made by a drawing master, William Brown and is taken from Claypath, to the north of the cathedral.

Click here to read part two of the Restoration, Redesign, Renovation blog series from our Open Treasure team.


  1. Good morning. I have an oil painting c1800 of the same view of the cathedral from Claypath which my father, Kenneth Ashby, bought at auction in c1958 in Durham. I know it formed part of an exhibition of paintings and local pictures of the cathedral in the late60s/early70s. It may predate the print by William Brown. I am currently trying to find out more about the painting as I have decided to have it cleaned and restored. I would be interested to know if W Brown was the artist or whether he simply used the image. I am happy to send a photo of the painting and would be grateful for any advice you could offer.

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