Wells Lib, as you may call it, is bringing one of the great masterpieces of mankind out of the closet.
For centuries the city of Wells has sat there, not budging, in southwestern England, holding on to the greatest concentration of Grade A medieval architecture in the world.
But nobody ever heard of it.
"Down the road from Canterbury, right?" people always say to the dean of Wells. Wells, Schmells, they don't know.
"Of course," confessed the Very Reverend Patrick Mitchell, dean of that cathedral, "there isn't any air or rail or bus service and we don't have lavatories, so tour groups don't come much."
I need not remind you that the main object of pilgrimage for any tour group is a bathroom.
It is beginning to dawn, however, on the citizens of Wells that their architecture and their cathedral are in the front rank of Gothic triumphs and the time has come, perhaps, to flatly say so.
I was glad this week to hear some aggressive tub-thumping for Wells from Mr. D.C. Tudway Quilter (Barclays Bank Lt., Briston) who is one of the trustees for Wells.
They have this odd notion that trustees in their spare time should travel to America to drum up interest or money or both to restore the west front of the great church at Wells. They have no fund-raising firm here, and thus no administrative costs. Their idea of raising money is so naive and wholsome I shall spend a word on it:
They send a trustee to washington and he has drinks at Lady Jamieson's on 31st Street.
Lady Jamieson invites a couple of neighbors and Richard Howland and Jack Patterson and that fellow from the paper who does something or other and brings out couple of decanters of whisky and sets them on a table underneath her grayish Vuilard, a painter much admired by connoisseurs. She also has plenty of soda water and everbody stands about for 20 minutes beneath the little Renoir over the fireplace and then Lady Jamieson says we must lose no time going to the library.
This is a small room, the door somewhat blocked by the dean, who is roughly 8 feet tall and weighs about 102 pounds and who has just discovered the movie projector doesn't work.
"Should give it to the Space Museum," he said. But another one turned up that worked fine and the film began, narrated by Prince Charles.
The prince has an engaging way of ending his sentences with a silent twitch of his mouth three-quarters of an inch to the right.
"I wish I could get my hands on that young man," said Anne Blair, a friend of Wells, "because that can be corrected."
"Not if he thinks it's attractive," a man said. "And I do think it's attractive -- not too affected, really."
"Well," said Blair, "what's attractive at 20 is not necessarily attractive at 50. The prince should think of that."
Meanwhile the dean was commenting on points in the film, and the sound track groaned mightily with the great pipe organ and choir of Wells and Mr. Tudway Quilter said there was no thought of raising Lady Jamieson cast a practiced eye to see if her two young grandsons were sitting properly and not fidgeting.
It seemed so different, in short, from the high-powered way American fund-raising is done that I thought you'd want to know.
But back to the first point -- Wells coming out of the closet:
Pamela Tudor-craig, arts evaluator, has boldly announced the sculpture of Wells to be of Chartres quality. It always has been, as anybody with an eye and a brain can see, but it never occurred to the folk of Wells to say so. I mean it's a little like dragging in the names of your most celebrated ancestors. It's not very well bred to call attention to glory, you know. You let others discover it.
Meanwhile, of course, the tour buses jam the roads to Amiens, and it's not only unfair, it's disgusting.
As Tudor-Craig has observed, both Notre Dame and Amiens (and she could have added Senlis and St. Denis) were much fiddled with by restorers who were not very good.
Whereas Wells, I am happy to report, has not had so much as a hose squirted on it since the 12th century.
Aye, there's the rub. The Atlantic gales since 1260 (when the great west front was finished have weathered the limestone sculptures terribly. But astonishingly enough, a poultice of quick-lime, followed by gentle brushing and washing, and as many as 50 coats of lime-water, restores the work. Lime is thus fed back into the stone. cA very light coating of lime preparation will preserve the sculpture surface for another 75-years -- after which further attention will be given.
The weather damage would not make so much difference if the front of wells were merely the White House or Buckingham Palace -- fairly routine and inconsequential architectural efforts -- but the fact is that Wells is such a triumph as human souls only rarely attempt.
Let alone achieve.
The 300 sculptures of this front are of world-competition quality, not merely local decor.
They were long preserved by their coatings of colored paint. We are aghast at the thought of paint on great sculpture, but it must have been gorgeous in scarlet and blue and violet and gold. Anyway, for centuries the paint protected the stone.
So did the niches in which the sculptures stand (or sit or kneel or fly or creep).
As Prince Charles has said, it is one of the most beautiful of all catherdrals (whether you ever heard of it or not, by God) with the power to astonish and over-awe.
There is a disgusting little sentence in a McGraw-Hill art dictionary about the gorgeous arches that hold up the tower.
In 1338, as you recall, the tower started to fall down, mainly because its height was doubled in a sudden enthusiasm. Architects commonly get carried away, or at least they did when architecture was less trite and boring then it is today.
An ingenious architect ran double arches (the top ones upside down, so the arches meet pint to point) to support the piers, and the effect is unparalleled in the world.
"A remarkable example of technical exhibitionism," the book calls it.
I suppose the author of the snotty remark about those glorious arches was a pale fellow holed up somewhere without a window and had been fed for years at the Automat. Part of our thoughts on Wells may well touch on this matter:
One of the rare cases in which enginering reaches the highest levels of art is easily dismissed, by the more lunkheaded type of critic, as "exhibitionism."
Surely it is time the glories of Wells came roaring forth on the consciousness of the world, and high time (I say) for the world to be told in words of one syllable that art at its best is here.
As for exhibitionism, the world needs more architects with something worth exhibiting.
Lady Jamieson's grandsons, by the way, did not fidget and, except for Anne Blair and her proposed elocution lessons to the Prince of Wales, there was little irreverence.
The great church itself (according to an authoritative report I have) suffered a "disastrous collapse in 1248" and some damage from anti-church yokels in the 1600s and some "vandalism from 19th-century boys" throwing rocks. y
Thank God, there are not many 19th-century boys throwing rocks any more. And in spite of it all, as Henry James once said, hardly any visitor to Wells is prepared for the "intensity of the impression that awaited me."
The money will come. Four million is less than the annual pansy bill for Washngton. It will come even though the only fund-raising is from the dean fiddling about with antique movie projectors and Prince Charles twitching to the right.
What in our own world of office buildings is gorgeous? Nothing. Not even efficient. Surely architects should be taxed half their incomes to preserve the work of true architects?
My own buck and a half has gone to preserve the work of true architects?
My own buck and a half has gone to William Hoar, Bankers Trust, 280 Park Ave., New York 10017, who sends it on to Wells. Doesn't get paid. Checks to Historic Churches Preservation Fund are tax-deductible.
But money isn't the problem. Certainly not in this space. The problem is splendor we don't even pay attention to. The problem is prissy folk who dismiss such magnificence as Wells as "technical exhibitionism." The problem is those dratted boys chunking rocks. The problem is our century that has so little gorgeousness of its own to pass along to the future, and which needs gentle reminders that what came down to us should not decay or be wasted in our clumsy paws.