Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The great debate: restoration vs conservation

As we've all revelled in the long overdue summer sunshine, we thought we'd turn our attention to a topic that's guaranteed to get people hot under the collar: the restoration versus conservation debate.

Anyone who turns their attention to an historic or period property will soon be confronted by this. It's a highly emotionally charged issue. How often, for instance, have you heard of someone who has lovingly invested millions bringing an old behemoth back to life, only to have a neighbour sneer at how they've wrecked it?  Or, admired the mirror sheen on a piece of lacquered furniture to be told "the patina's been destroyed.  They sanded and refinished it."

English japanned cabinet at Mount Stewart, County Down, photo John Hammond,
similiar to the cabinet described above that was recently conserved
Saving something that was on the verge of disintegration for future generations to enjoy, or vandalising an irreplaceable national treasure beyond redemption? Or as is often the case, just trying to make a not particularly valuable piece of furniture pretty and useful again.  Perhaps it would help if we look at what the different sides are trying to achieve.

I have a japanned cabinet on stand in mind as I write this. It is eighteenth century, quite rare and very beautiful from a slight distance. Upon closer inspection the surface is heavily flaking, including the over painted chinoiserie designs, there are several poorly repaired breaks, the plain finished back is warped and starting to draw apart, affecting the stability of the piece, and the top of the chest is also beginning to separate causing the piece to look slightly bowed from the top.  As if that weren't enough to worry about, several pieces of the unusual mother of pearl inlay have popped out due to expansion and contraction from the climate extremes the piece has been subjected to for the two hundred years of its life.

Do I conserve the piece, which means to stabilise and possibly clean whilst disturbing the existing finish and fabric as little as possible, using as many reversible materials as possible? Or do I restore it, which may involve the radical step of renewing the finish whilst probably retaining some of it at the back or underneath as a clue for future restorers, replace pieces at the back where necessary and replace bits of perished inlay, remove the top and try to level it through various methods, etc? What I will then have is a very beautiful object that will also be far more robust - but will its value be affected by it not being in original condition?
This Victorian armchair at centre of photo was in bits in the barn when the
owner purchased the plantation.  Restored and reupholstered it is fit for purpose as
a comfortable reading chair in the master bedroom.  c Killian-Dawson Ltd
This is a subjective debate as salerooms and buyers continually prove. It seems to me that provenance plays a central role in assessing the value of objects that at times seem very ordinary - such as nursery furnishings from the Chatsworth attic sale several years ago which commanded inflated prices compared to the market as a whole.  It also depends on the market; some markets prefer an object to look like new and that element may increase the sale value in a particular sector.  Every sale catalogue mentions "later repairs".

Whatever the point of view, it is still an essential discussion. Conservator William Marshall, for many years manager of the restoration workshop at Hyde Park Antiques commented, "in my view the object of restoration is to bring back the beauty and function lost to time and damage without changing the piece. To make it look as though it was only dusted for 200 years."  My personal opinion varies depending on the value of the item, the intended use and the owner/users point of view.  An organisation like The National Trust spends a substantial amount of its budget each year on conservation, which means mostly boring delicate cleaning, and controlling climate, uv light exposure and pests.

The fate of the cabinet on stand mentioned above is that a decision was taken to conserve rather than restore it.  This can be a more costly process and the final result may be disappointing aesthetically for anyone expecting the bling factor of a new or perfect eighteenth century example of japanned chest on stand.  We were thrilled to show the fading of colour and mottled finish, the raised areas and losses as it highlights this particular cabinet's journey through time to the present.  And the owners placed it in a dressing room where it would not be subject to heavy use or risk of excessive decay.

An original Queen Anne walnut secretary
The same piece, after restoration
by Guenther Wood Group

When these pieces were first made in England (a result of demand from the Orient outstripping supply), cabinetmakers John Stalker and George Parker published the "Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing" in1688.  It described in detail with drawings how to create this labour intensive and highly fashionable finish with different varnishes and gums.  It is even more laborious and expensive to stabilise an existing finish today - just doing the detective work of how exactly the finish was achieved can take many hours.  Is it worth it?  I believe the answer is yes, if you can afford it.  The honest patina acquired over several hundred years cannot be replicated and in most cases adds to the value of a carefully maintained piece of furniture.

However, if a piece of furniture has deteriorated to such a degree that it is no longer useful let alone beautiful then restoration is almost certainly the answer.

"Every antique, no matter how humble, has a very important story to tell about our cultural heritage."
Olaf Unsoeld, conservator

Next time we will examine the impact the restoration/conservation debate has had upon houses and the way we use them...