Mediterranean Conservation

by Charlie Wellingham,

This year the Scholars were invited to visit the fortified city of Valletta on the island of Malta, to experience alternative approaches to conservation and management of heritage in a cultural and political climate (as well as weather climate!) to that of the United Kingdom. Witnessing the successes and challenges of international projects is a great way to reflect on the frameworks that we operate within back home, evidencing where they are strong and where they could benefit from improvement. This includes the systems for funding, statutory permissions and management of sites, as well as the procurement of projects and control of quality of work on site. During this intensive week we attended 18 sites in 5 days, and as representatives of the SPAB we were able to raise the profile of the philosophies of conservative repair with the new contacts we met.

Although small, Malta is the perfect location for this kind of trip as it has such a dense and diverse history, from the neolithic settlements of immigrants from Sicily in 5000 BC, through the centuries of conquest and occupation by nearly every seafaring empire of Europe and Africa. The island was given to the Knights of the Order of St.John by King Philip of Spain in 1530, as an outpost for the hospitallers to treat the wounded coming back from Crusades. The city of Valletta began construction in the 1560s following the Knights’ survival of a devastating siege by the Ottoman armies of Saladin – fortified and designed to be fully self-sufficient to ensure its impregnability for future centuries. Valetta lays claim to being amongst Europe’s oldest fully planned ‘new’ cities; an interesting example of its insightful design was the requirement of all houses inside the city walls to have a below-ground water cistern and food store (for surviving potential siege), and that the stone excavated in the basement construction should be exactly the amount of stone required to build the dwelling above. Below is a quick description of some of the week’s highlights.

St.John’s Co-Cathedral (1560s)
We were invited to observe the conservative repairs of the limestone West Elevation, with Jean Frendo of the Malta Restoration Directorate. This includes raking out previous cement pointing, pinning stone indents where required with stainless steel rods and epoxy resins, cleaning the stonework with brushes and poultices, and strengthening fragile carvings with ammonium-oxalate consolidants. It was interesting to hear that lime work cannot be carried out when the temperatures exceed 25 degrees centigrade – and as such the ‘lime season’ is throughout the winter months (the opposite practice to the UK!).

Scaffold, Malta

The Church of Our Lady of Valletta (1560s)
Maria Grazia of heritage body Din L’Art Helwa introduced us to the conservators working on the painted ceiling of Valletta’s oldest church (and the first building completed when city construction began). The painted ceiling is being cleaned and repaired by conservators from the Courtauld Institute in London, supporting the loose surface where it has flaked away from its substrate with a weak lime putty plaster. It was interesting to see the meeting of differing approaches between the Maltese client, and the UK conservators.

Ceiling, Valetta, Malta
Hagir Qim Neolithic site (c.3000 BC)
The recently completed protective canopy at Hagar Qim is designed to protect the exposed archaeological remains at this Unesco World Heritage site, and is a controversially invasive proposal. Various options were proposed for slowing the increasing decay of the limestone (including re-burying the site that was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th Century), and the tent structure as built was designed to meet the ground in as few locations as possible. We spent some time debating the appropriateness of the scheme and its complex pros and cons, including the potential creation of an unpredictable new micro-climate beneath the canopy, the loss of the site’s connection to it’s coastline landscape, and its usefulness in the improved management of tourist footfall and infrastructure.


City Gate Project (2014)
The centre-piece development of Renzo Piano’s Valletta masterplan, which was begun in 1989, is the creation of a new city gate and head quarters building for the Maltese parliament. We were shown around the live site by local architect Guilliame Dreyfuss from partner practice Architecture Projects. It was interesting to see this new design working in and around the historic fabric, conserving and repairing former wounds at an urban scale – piecing the ruined Opera House back into the city with new pedestrian routes and squares. The gate itself is an interesting design exercise, exemplifying a bold contemporary statement that still honours the history of such a significant location and its many former incarnations.


Many thanks to former Scholar Charlie de Bono for his time in preparing the site visits on our behalf – and chaperoning us for the week! It was a fantastic opportunity to get under the skin of a fascinating historic city.

Sketch by Charlie Wellingham


Past Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

Dave Watts, National Trust’s Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire and 1995 Fellow, tells the SPAB about his love affair with brickwork.

1995 SPAB Fellows, Dave Watts, Mark Fowler and Sarah Pennal

1995 SPAB Fellows, Dave Watts, Mark Fowler and Sarah Pennal

At school I only ever excelled at sport so after leaving at 15 with only two O Levels I embarked on a bricklaying apprenticeship at British Rail in Derby. It was a tough environment and what followed was rather a baptism of fire, the work was very demanding and initially I wasn’t spoken to for 3 weeks as they thought I was the son of a gaffer! Thankfully three older bricklayers who were nearing retirement took me under their wing. They had the skills I wanted to learn and they could see my eagerness, I owe them a lot. I soon started to develop. A significant and proud moment came about three months in when one of the older bricklayers announced to the whole depot that I was already the best at repointing.
After this I knew I could be really good and my love affair with brickwork took off.  As soon as I entered college (City and Guilds day release) I took off and ended up being fast-tracked. I achieved my advanced craft certificate in three years rather than four and won several awards for best apprentice.

Work at the railway was mostly station, bridge and tunnel repairs/skew back arches. Working under the older craftsmen I really started to thrive. I began researching brickwork and started my book and tool collection. After working on new-build projects, which I hated, I moved on to the National Trust. I become Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire (based on the Calke Abbey estate) by the time I was 28.

When a previous SPAB Fellow, Ray Stevens was recruited to the team I began to hear more about the SPAB. I applied to the Fellowship in 1995 and spent the next nine months travelling the country increasing my knowledge of traditional materials in ancient and period buildings.  It was invaluable to me and it has influenced my work ever since. Obviously we visited countless fantastic buildings but it is probably from speaking with other craftsmen, surveyors and architects that I learned the most. Special places for me were St Pancras and Hampton Court Palace for all the various carved, gauged and moulded brickwork from many periods. As a Derbyshire man I also love the ‘crooked spire’ at the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield – surely one of the best landmarks in the country – and though I am not a religious person I think there is something wonderful about the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.  Calke Abbey itself remains very special to me.

After the Fellowship I became heavily involved in the William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust (the Trust helps to fund the SPAB Fellowship programme) for a number of years, several spent as secretary, which was great for networking with other Fellows. I do miss it, especially Tom Flemons, Andy Johnson and Janet Darby.

Even though I now only rarely get the chance to use my tools, I am still mad about brickwork. I think it’s because it involves such a high level of artistry to create a true piece of work or repair from just a heap of bricks and mortar. My wife is often chastising me for suddenly slowing the car down to look at a section of wall and for pausing the TV to comment on some background brickwork!

I have never really sought a further promotion at the National Trust. My role there suits me well and it’s where I am most effective, I enjoy having a close link with the men actually carrying out the work.

In recent years, one of my jobs that stands out is the refurbishment of Stoneywell Cottage in Leicestershire. It is a Grade II* listed Arts and Crafts building owned by the National Trust and only recently opened to the public. I can thoroughly recommend a visit.

If you think the SPAB Fellowship could be for you find out more about our 2015 programme. Application deadline is 1 December.

Northern Triptych

By Charlie Wellingham

The conclusion of the Scholars’ month in Scotland was a short tour of the Orkney Islands, marking the most northerly point achieved during our explorations of the British Isles thus far. Orkney’s strategic position of defence against sea-faring foes has seen it under attack at many stages in its history; from Viking long boats to German U-Boats, each age leaving indelible marks on the fascinating narrative of such a small population. The projects we visited are particularly interesting as they exemplify some of the contrasting approaches to managing historical sites that we have experienced so far after six months of our Scholarship. They illustrate the vast spectrum of conservation philosophies, and how the application of each can either be rationally justified or crudely inappropriate, depending on the case by case circumstances of the site.

Neolithic Orkney
4000 years before the Vikings, and 5000 years before today, the Neolithic population of Orkney lived in close-knit communal groupings of roundhouses – such as those discovered at Scara Brae in 1850, when a powerful storm blew the top off of the turfed mounds just beyond the garden walls at Skaill House. The site was analysed and recorded by renowned archaeologist Professor Gordon Childe, and awarded UNESCO World Heritage status as one of the most complete examples of a Neolithic settlement in Europe. Scara Brae is just one of a chain of sites across mainland Orkney that would have been inhabited concurrently in approx 3000 BC; including ceremonial standing stone circles and cairns. The Scholars also visited Maes Howe burial chamber, a confined stone enclosure below a mound in the earth, accessed by a low 10 metre tunnel. Further to the astonishing prehistoric structure, the surfaces of the interior were covered in engraved Viking runes dating back to the 12th century, when marauding invaders sheltered in the cairn for survival.

The upkeep and presentation of these sites shows a ‘preservative’ approach to a historic site; where survival of original fabric is of paramount importance, and all efforts are taken to retain the atmosphere of the sites upon their discovery as archaeological relics, without compromising their authenticity with imitation or conjecture.
Scara Brae

Wartime Orkney
In a bid to entrap German submarines that circumnavigated the northern tip of Scotland (and in response to the sinking of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow), Winston Churchill ordered the immediate construction of causeways between several of the islands in the Orkney archipelago between 1940 and 1944. To facilitate the speedy construction, 550 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Orkney, and housed in a P.O.W camp on South Ronaldsay for 2 years.

Although numerous interesting and often unique structures survive from this militarised chapter of Orkney’s history – the most evocative is the ‘Italian Chapel’ that the P.O.Ws built for their own use so they could practice their Catholic faith; the chapel is housed in a typical Nissen hut bequeathed to them by their allied captors. The entire front of the utilitarian military structure is hidden behind a sculpted concrete facade, complete with crocketed bellcote and doric portico, which is just a small taster in preparation for the exquisitely painted interior. Several panels inside the chapel explain how the building was left to the people of Orkney upon the decommissioning of the camp and mobilisation of the prisoners back to Italy in 1944. Twenty years later the Italian artist responsible for overseeing the decoration of the chapel was invited back to South Ronaldsay in order to advise on the careful conservation and cleaning of the interiors.

This restoration of the serene space under the watchful eye of the original artist follows a ‘restorative’ approach to a historic site; where the significance of the original aesthetic vision is considered to transcend the intrinsic patination of the aging brick, concrete and paint surfaces that compose it, and it is conserved intact as the artwork that it truly is.
Italian Chapel
Designer, Maker, Orkney
Some 50 years after the discovery of Scara Brae, the island of Hoy was chosen as the location for a new house in the Arts and Crafts style by William Lethaby, fresh from his apprenticeship in the Studio of Richard Norman Shaw. Lethaby did not complete many built projects, and a large part of his legacy was his academic writing and pioneering approaches to architectural education that sought to unite the separate disciplines of ‘designing’ and ‘making’ (indeed the SPAB Scholarship continues to champion this philosophy, and as such is named in his honour). From the quiet solitude of the arched chapel, to the carved symbology of the distinctive triple gable; Melsetter House on Hoy is considered by many to be Lethaby’s most accomplished built work.

The homely welcome of Melsetter and day to day activities of the family that dwells there exemplify what I consider to be the best way of ensuring the survival of our historic sites – through use, life and love. There is no need to emphasise the story of the house as a ‘survivor’, or overtly celebrate the century-old craftsmanship; both are self evident in the cups and saucers, paintings and photographs, desks and lamps, letters and fountain pens. Trophies of a life well lived and a house well loved.
Melsetter House

The Dance Scholarship Trust’s Evening Salon

by Harry Wardill, 2011 Scholar

In line with the recent tradition of past Scholars fundraising for the SPAB Scholarship, the 2011 and 2012 years have teamed up to plan an ambitious event at the popular Farmiloe Building in Clerkenwell on Thursday 23 October, 6-9pm.

This amazing venue was secured through Geoff Rich, 1995 Scholar and Partner at leading Architecture practice Feilden Clegg Bradley, who have completed the scheme for the imminent regeneration of the building. As well as being the temporary home of many high profile events over the last few years including Clerkenwell Design Week, it has also been used as a film set for Hollywood Blockbusters such as Batman and Sherlock Holmes.

The ‘Evening Salon’ as it is called, is based around an auction of donated works from Scholars past and present, skillfully run by an ex-Sotheby’s auctioneer to ensure all flows smoothly. It is intended to be an event that not only raises money for future Scholars, but also celebrates the Scholarship and brings it to a new audience. To this end there will be a couple of talks, again from Scholars past and present, to tell people what the Scholarship is about and to bring it to life. The evening will be fuelled by the wonderful food and drink of French and Grace and set to the music of a traditional Cornish folk group. Just to ensure there is something for everyone, full tours of the unique building will also be on offer.

Sketches have been pouring in, and it is testament not only to the skill and talent of the collective Scholars, but also the sense of community that exists that many have contributed and clearly put a great deal of time and effort in- to give a taster here is a sketch of the building itself from 2004 Scholar Tim Greensmith. If you’d like to be a part of this carnival of conservation get your tickets Evening Salon tickets.

The Farmiloe Building - Tim Greensmith

The Farmiloe Building – Tim Greensmith