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Thomas Gray to James Bentham, [c. March 1765]

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To the Rev. Mr. Bentham,

Mr. Gray returns the papers and prints to Mr. Bentham, with many thanks for the sight of them.

Concludes, he has laid aside his intention of publishing the first four Sections of his Introduction, that contain the settlement and progress of Christianity among the Saxons: as (however curious and instructive in themselves) they certainly have too slight a connection with the subject in hand to make a part of the present work.

Has received much entertainment and information from his remarks on the state of Architecture among the Saxons, and thinks he has proved his point against the authority of Stow and Somner. The words of Eddius, Richard of Hexham, &c., must be every where cited in the original tongue, as the most accurate translation is in these cases not to be trusted; this Mr. B. has indeed commonly done in the MSS. but not every where.

P. 31. He says, the instances Sir C. Wren brings were, some of them at least, undoubtedly erected after the Conquest. Sure they were all so without exception.

There is much probability in what he asserts with respect to the New Norman mode of building; though this is not, nor perhaps can be, made out with so much precision as the former point.

P. 35. Here, where the Author is giving a compendious view of the peculiarities that distinguish the Saxon style, it might be mentioned, that they had no tabernacles (or niches and canopies), nor any statues to adorn their buildings on the outside, which are the principal grace of what is called the Gothic; the only exception that I can recollect, is a little figure of Bishop Herebert Losing over the north transept door at Norwich, which appears to be of that time: but this is rather a mezzorelievo than a statue, and it is well known, that they used reliefs sometimes with profusion, as in the Saxon gateway of the abbey at Bury, the gate of the Temple Church at London, and the two gates at Ely, &c.

The want of pinnacles, and of tracery in the vaults, are afterwards mentioned, but may as well be placed here too (in short), among the other characteristicks.

Escutcheons of arms are hardly (if ever) seen in these fabricks, which are the most frequent of all decorations in after-times.

P. 34. Beside the Chevron work (or zig-zag moulding) so common, which is here mentioned, there was also,

The Billeted-moulding, as if a cylinder should be cut into small pieces of equal length, and these stuck on alternately round the face of the arches, as in the choir at Peterborough, and at St. Cross, &c.

The Nail-head, resembling the heads of great nails driven in at regular distances, as in the nave of old St. Paul's, and the great tower of Hereford, &c.

The Nebule, a projection terminated by an undulating line as under the upper range of windows on the outside at Peterborough.

Then to adorn their vast massive columns there was the Spiral-Groove winding round the shafts, and the Net, or Lozenge-work, overspreading them; both of which appear at Durham, and the first in the undercroft at Canterbury.

These few things are mentioned only, because Mr. Bentham's work is so nearly compleat in this part, that one would wish it were quite so. His own observation may doubtless suggest to him many more peculiarities, which, however minute in appearance, are not contemptible, because they directly belong to his subject, and contribute to ascertain the age of an edifice at first sight. The great deficiency is from Henry VIth's time to the Reformation, when the art was indeed at its height.

P. 36. At York, under the choir, remains much of the old work, built by Archbishop Roger, of Bishop's-bridge, in Henry IId's reign; the arches are but just pointed, and rise on short round pillars, whose capitals are adorned with animals and foliage.

P. 37. Possibly the pointed arch might take its rise from those arcades we see in the early Norman (or Saxon) buildings on walls, where the wide semicircular arches cross and intersect each other, and form thereby at their intersection exactly a narrow and sharp-pointed arch. In the wall south of the choir at St. Cross, is a facing of such wide, round, interlaced arches by way of ornament to a flat vacant space; only so much of it as lies between the legs of the two neighbouring arches, where they cross each other, is pierced through the fabrick, and forms a little range of long pointed windows. It is of King Stephen's time.

P. 43. As Mr. B. has thought it proper to make a compliment to the present set of Governors in their respective churches; it were to be wished he would insert a little reflection on the rage of repairing, beautifying, whitewashing, painting, and gilding, and (above all) the mixture of Greek (or Roman) ornaments in Gothic edifices. This well-meant fury has been and will be little less fatal to our ancient magnificent edifices, than the reformation and the civil wars.

Mr. G. would wish to be told (at Mr. Bentham's leisure), whether over the great pointed arches, on which the Western Tower at Ely rises, any thing like a semicircular curve appears in the stone work? and whether the screen (or rood-loft) with some part of the South-Cross, may not possibly be a part of the more ancient church built by Abbot Simeon and Fitz-Gilbert?

Letter ID: letters.0452 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Writer's age: 48
Addressee: Bentham, James, 1708-1794
Addressee's age: 57


Date of composition: [c. March 1765]
Calendar: Gregorian


Place of composition: [Cambridge, United Kingdom]


Language: English
Incipit: Mr. Gray returns the papers and prints to Mr. Bentham, with many thanks...
Mentioned: Bentham, James, 1708-1794
Bury Abbey
Canterbury Cathedral
Durham Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral
Peterborough Cathedral
Richard of Hexham
Somner, William
St. Cross Hospital
Stow, John
York Minster

Holding Institution

Add. MSS 4251(B)563, Additional Manuscripts, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University Library , Cambridge, UK <>
Availability: The original letter is extant and usually available for academic research purposes

Print Versions

  • Gentleman's Magazine, Apr. 1784, vol. liv, 244
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section IV, letter CXXV, vol. ii, 464-467
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section IV, letter CXXXVI, vol. iv, 70-74
  • The Letters of Thomas Gray, including the correspondence of Gray and Mason, 3 vols. Ed. by Duncan C. Tovey. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900-12, appendix III, vol. iii, 341-344
  • Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Gray. Ed. with Introduction and Notes by Clark Sutherland Northup. Boston and London: D. C. Heath & Co., 1911, letter excerpt, 276-280
  • Correspondence of Thomas Gray, 3 vols. Ed. by the late Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, with corrections and additions by H. W. Starr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 [1st ed. 1935], letter no. 399*, vol. ii, 862-866