The changing face of the Chapter House at Durham Cathedral, is the next topic of discussion in our specially curated Restoration, Redesign, Renovation virtual museum collection, which forms part of the BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine event #MuseumFromHome.  We hope you enjoy.

The Chapter House – Ruin to Restoration

Architect James Wyatt came to harsh conclusions about the Chapter House. As the Chapter Acts of 1795 put it, the building was ‘pronounced by Mr Wyat (sic) on his Survey thereof, to be in a ruinous state… ’. But a survey in 1795 by John Carter of the Society of Antiquaries of London reached a different conclusion.  Carter reported that ‘no part of the building was in a decaying or dangerous state’.  Unfortunately Chapter, the governing body of the cathedral, already believed the building to be cold and unsuitable and so they agreed with Wyatt. The decision was taken to tear it down and the project went ahead.

When the public discovered that most of the Chapter House had been demolished, it was called ‘the most deplorable piece of vandalism ever conceived.’  Such was the backlash that the Dean, James Cornwallis, attempted to distance himself from the decision by saying Chapter never consulted him before giving approval.  It remained in this shortened state for nearly one hundred years.

Bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot has been a big supporter of restoring the Chapter House.  When he died in 1889, it was decided that the restoration would be carried out in his memory.  The cost of this work, along with a memorial placed in the cathedral, came to £4000.  Plans were drawn up by Charles Hodgson Fowler and approved by Chapter in November 1891.  Carved above the West door in Latin is an inscription; ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.’

These are the plans drawn up by Charles Hodgson Fowler in 1891.  The parts in dark blue are what remains of the original building, the light blue are the 19th century additions.  You might also be able to make out some small rectangular markings on the plan.  These record the location of the graves of various early Bishops of Durham buried under the Chapter House.

The graves were examined during excavations which were carried out in June 1874.  This unusual item from the Cathedral Archives is one of the strangest ever found while researching exhibitions for Open Treasure.  It is a rubbing of a cross shaped drainage hole from the coffin of Bishop Richard de Kellawe who died in 1316 (shown below).  Drainage holes were an important part of a coffin as a build up of gas from the decomposing body could otherwise cause it to explode!

The rebuilding of the Chapter House was captured in paint by G.W. Welch.  He was a lay clerk at the cathedral and a noted singer with a voice that showed ‘considerable compass and flexibility’.  This painting normally hangs on the Cope Closet in the Chapter House.  When it was removed for the exhibition, a review of the painting was discovered. It has been stuck to the back of the frame.  Shortly after completion it was exhibited in Newcastle where it was described as ‘a striking work’ but it was criticised for its ‘evidence of haste and want of finish’.  In particular the scaffolding was called out for being ‘composed of mere lines of paint without light or relief’.  Proving that even over one hundred years later, critics are the worst!

Read the next instalment of our virtual exhibition here.


  1. Is there a Telamon? or perhaps a crouching Atlas figure in the Chapter house? And if so is it original or restoration work. (The romanesque rop fragment in the Galilee has left a clearer impression)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s