The philosophy of repair

by Declan Cahill

Over the past couple of weeks we have visited sites where we have been told about various approaches to the treatment of historic stonework. This has got us debating, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing about which approach would be the best one in each situation. As someone who believes that not one rule can be applied to all situations, I have found it very interesting to look at these approaches and to think if I would do the same, and if not what the alternatives might be. Since 1887 the Society and its members have been fighting for the timeless beauty of historic buildings that comes naturally with age. But what is important and sets each approach apart is what level of intervention is required to stave off decay, and that we do not lose this beauty by being too heavy handed in our intervention.

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Villa Saraceno

Recently we were very lucky to be invited to Villa Saraceno with the Landmark Trust. You can read more about our trip in a forthcoming blog post. Here I am going to touch on the approach they are taking towards the preservation of the stonework at the villa. The villa is predominantly brick built and rendered, with stone detailing to the windows and doors. The stone is a white limestone that was used in most of Palladio’s buildings. During our visit we got the chance to learn from Serse and Katrin from PT Color, who explained the methods they were using to preserve the stone and minimize the loss of flaking stone from a door jamb.

The conservators were using lime-based consolidants for flakes with larger openings and an acrylic resin on the finer flakes. The edges of the flakes were then closed using a lime-based mortar. On an annual basis the conservators visit the site and try to prolong the life of the worst delaminating stone. This painstaking process is very admirable, but on further discussion it’s important to think about the other factors that inform this decision.

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Stone consolidation at Villa Saraceno

Firstly the significance of the villa, it is an early incomplete example of Palladio’s design that incorporated the functionality of the farmstead with the grandeur and geometry of the country retreat. The white limestone of the area is inherently a softer limestone and the jamb that was being worked on faced the north west, thus exposing the stone to the worst weather conditions. The conservators’ argument against using shelter coats was that you would not see the original stone face. Do we let the stone age and decay, accepting that the stone will one day need replacing, or do we do our utmost to prolong the life of the stone? Are we preventing the stone from gracefully aging? And if we are to intervene at what stage do we begin this intervention?

Just seven days after standing in front of the door jamb at Villa Saraceno, we were back on English soil and visiting St. Leonard’s Middleton Parish Church to look at the south porch of this medieval church that has had minimum intervention since its conception in 1412. The parish’s website describes the porch as ‘romantically crumbling away’ and it is exactly this romanticism that the church is at risk of losing.

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‘Romantic’ south porch at St Leonard’s church

The parish has decided that now is the time for intervention, and the church architect’s proposal is to de-frass the stonework to give it a ‘carved’ face again. We were able to see a test panel that had been produced by a stonemason for discussion.

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Examples panels of de-frassed stonework

It is important to add that the present stonework is laminating but there isn’t any excessive loss of stone; it is in a state that is beautiful to look at due to the natural patina of age. By taking this approach the church’s aesthetic will be altered forever and layers will be lost from its history. We can only hope that the parish see what they will be losing and that a more respectful approach will be chosen.

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Natural patina to the south porch stonework

The case at Middleton reminded me of the origins of the SPAB when the Society was also known as the ‘Anti Scrape Society’. The Society was founded on a belief that we should approach the repair of historic fabric with minimum intervention and only act to prevent future damage. We must respect the original craftsperson’s work; that is currently in danger of being forgotten at Middleton but is being championed at Saraceno.

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Paint and plaster conservation at Gorton Monastery

Another site visit has taken us to Gorton Monastery, where Alan Gardener is applying these meticulous preservation and consolidation techniques to the consolidation of Victorian (and later) wall paintings, plaster and stone. Seeing similar techniques to those at Villa Saraceno being applied at Gorton is a timely reminder that we need to approach our work with respect and that historic fabric, no matter how old, has significance.

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2 thoughts on “The philosophy of repair

  1. Thoughtful piece. Has there been any analysis of the potential long-term effects of ‘defrassing’ at Middleton ? Isn’t it likely to speed up the process of decay (as well as losing much of the original surface and the rather wonderful patina you describe) ? I wonder if there aren’t other buildings locally where this approach has been tried which might give some clues about this ? There are churches in the North Oxfordshire/South Northants area (where there’s often a similar pattern of decay in the local ironstone) where defrassing has been carried out and then the newly exposed ‘sound’ stone surface has started to decay (as y’might expect…?). Who is the architect for Middleton and what is the driving force behind the proposals ? As well as seeing a ‘carved’ surface, is there a concern at the ‘untidy’ appearance of the porch ? Do you think it would be practical to approach conservation of the porch (and what about the rest of the church ?) on a similar basis to the repairs you describe at Saraceno and Gorton..?

  2. Good artical Declan. It’s interesting to hear about the variety of conservation techniques you are hearing about in the UK and the approach in wider Europe and how they apply to different contexts.

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