A Question of Ethics

Historical authenticity and the design of alterations and repairs to historic buildings fuelled intense debate in the mid 19th Century, much as they do today. Peter Burman traces the development of a modern conservation philosophy.


It is not possible for me to be entirely dispassionate in writing about this subject for, as Philip Webb (1835-1915) the great Arts & Crafts architect and friend of William Morris put it, 'I am a drains man'; that is to say I believe in the vital importance of maintenance. The instant you make any kind of intervention to a building you change it, however subtly; if you take off 18th century handmade pan tiles and replace them with new beautiful hand-made pan tiles you have, nevertheless, replaced the original or earlier ones with something different. This applies equally to historic houses, great or small, as it does to churches and chapels.

All such changes are painfully apparent to the eye of a painter. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the most influential contribution to the debate about the philosophy of repair in the 19th Century was made by John Ruskin, art critic and painter, who studied with the passionate intensity of an artist not only the time-ravaged walls of Tuscany and the Veneto but also the minute particularities of geological specimens and plant-life. In any discussion of conservation philosophy, Ruskin cannot be ignored. He is persuasive, and provides us with the 'poetry of conservation' as opposed to the necessary 'prose of conservation' which entails thorough grounding in technical matters and an ability to see a building and its conservation needs as a whole.

The most important of the many writings which refer to buildings, and to the preservation of buildings, is The Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849 and, in particular, The Lamp of Memory where Ruskin introduces us to the idea of trusteeship: '...it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us', and this same idea of trusteeship is elsewhere memorably extended to natural beauty, to Mother Earth, and her resources. In so many ways, Ruskin anticipates the anxieties, concerns and problems of the late 20th Century.

It is through Ruskin that we first realise the necessity to make a crisp distinction between 'restoration' and 'repair', and it is a distinction of fundamental importance. Ruskin felt that 'restoration' means 'the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed'. He goes on to say; 'It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture'. Ruskin attacked the idea, current in the mid-19th Century, that new stones equalled in value the work of the old craftsmen. A celebrated instance was his unsuccessful campaign to save the church of Sta Maria della Spina, in Pisa, from being moved: he caused it to be recorded in daguerreotypes, and himself made a series of painstakingly accurate drawings. From these, we can see the truth of his contention: the church as it appears today is painfully of the mid-19th Century and not of the 14th Century. It has its own validity, its own beauty, maybe; but it is not the same as it was before.

So part of this debate is undoubtedly about 'value', existing value, past value, and future value. As a simple rule of thumb, I have myself evolved the notion that in dealing with historic buildings we should try hard not to remove any aspect of value, but that it is legitimate to add value.

However, that is perhaps to anticipate. Memorably and poetically, Ruskin urged that 'The whole finish of the work was in the half inch that is gone… There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost; some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought. There can be none in the brute hardness of the new carving'.

It must not be forgotten that Ruskin expressed, in resonant language, the philosophy of repair at its most cogent, as no one had done before or has done since: 'Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves and sticks swept in time out of a water-course, will save both roof and walls from ruin. Watch an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation'. This might almost be taken as a blueprint for quinquennial inspection reports and the regular rhythm of careful maintenance and gentle repairs, which many church architects and parish authorities faithfully endeavour to follow today!

Ruskin was, with William Morris, one of the founding fathers of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Morris's famous Manifesto, written in 1878, reads in part like a series of quotations from Ruskin, and Morris was confessedly and powerfully influenced by the older man. For me, Morris has provided in the Manifesto the best definition of value in this context that I have come across: 'If, for the rest, it be asked us to specify what kind of amount of art, style, or other interest in a building, makes it worth protecting, we answer, anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial: any work, in short, over which educated, artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue at all'. And Morris has also given us one of the most memorable phrases with which we can associate the philosophy of repair rather than restoration (echoed also in the Central European and German-speaking countries of Europe), namely 'to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands... In fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying'.

The buildings which most concerned both John Ruskin and William Morris were essentially those of the Middle Ages and a little later, up to say the end of the 17th Century. And although Morris was goaded into founding the SPAB by work being carried out at such undoubted masterpieces as Burford Parish Church and Tewkesbury Abbey, it must not be forgotten that both Ruskin and Morris cared passionately about vernacular buildings also. Many of our churches and chapels, scattered throughout Europe, are indeed essentially vernacular buildings, though as a class, churches embrace architecture of every degree of sophistication.


An influential Secretary of the SPAB before and after the First World War was the architect AR Powys who, in 1929, published his Repair of Ancient Buildings. Essentially a distillation of SPAB philosophy and practice, his approach leant heavily on the precept and example of the work of such architects as Philip Webb, William Weir, Ernest and Sydney Barnsley, CR Ashbee, and others who had come within the SPAB sphere of influence. Powys was one of the two British delegates to the conference in Athens in 1931 which resulted in a declaration to define and draw out a responsible philosophical approach to the repair and conservation of a major architectural monument, in this case the monuments on the Acropolis in Athens. The so-called Athens Charter contained some unmistakably Powysian phrases, but surely remained largely unread and unheeded. It had its principal influence on the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, the text of which was agreed at a widely-representative international meeting at Venice in May 1964. This 'Venice Charter' begins with a series of definitions which have provided a quarry for debate ever since. For instance, Article 6 (under 'Conservation') states; 'The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed'. Arguably, some of the liveliest and best work to historic buildings has been the boldest, and perhaps such formulations should be regarded as 'the general rule' rather than governing all possible and foreseeable circumstances.

Although little read and pondered in the United Kingdom, the commitment to the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) which many countries throughout the world have made, has meant that the Venice Charter has had a pervasive influence, and its assumptions have been very influential, although it is perhaps too European-centred.

The Australian ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance of 1979 (amended in 1988), known as the ' Burra Charter', sought to find a way of adapting the Venice Charter to local conditions which might be very different from European ones. Personally, in spite of its lack of enthusiasm for repair, which it defines as involving 'restoration or reconstruction', I find the Burra Charter the most useful of all the international charters. First of all, the definitions are sound and they take us beyond the individual building as in Article 5: 'Conservation of a place should take into consideration all aspects of its cultural significance without unwarranted emphasis on any one aspect at the expense of others'. It is here that the idea of 'cultural significance' emerges as a vital one, and the idea of a building is replaced by that of 'place', which makes sense. The definitions are followed by a series of guidelines, one dealing with Cultural Significance and how to establish it, which is always a very useful exercise; one dealing with Conservation Policy, and its implementation; and the final one dealing with the undertaking of Studies and Reports which, it urges, should be properly debated and published. Proper record-keeping is not the least of the Burra Charter's virtues.

Since then, there has been a flurry of charters dealing with gardens, archaeology and - most recently - the question of authenticity. The Nara Conference on Authenticity, held in Japan last year, attempted to grapple with the question of values and authenticity, paying respect to the idea that different cultures would have different values and maybe even different notions of authenticity. So far, I have not found the document particularly helpful, but plainly it needs further study and teasing out and opportunities to discuss it with others and in various ways and in various places.


Bringing all these considerations back to the question of church conservation and repairs, I would suggest that there are two important considerations which can help:

(i) it is invaluable to make the attempt to define the value or cultural significance of the building we are dealing with, taking all aspects of the place into account, including its setting and its furnishings and its decoration; and
(ii) having done that, let us seek not to derogate or take away anything from that value but maybe to add to it.

I will give just one example, namely the repair programme finished some four years ago to the tiny Fisherman's Chapel at St Brelade, in Jersey. Analysis, both archaeological and architectural, of the place showed its extraordinary importance as an intact surviving structure of the late 12th or early 13th century, with extensive remains of mural paintings on the upper parts of the walls and on the vault. However, in the past the building had been both neglected and compromised. The repair programme included not only repair of the roof covering, after due consideration of methods and materials, but also re-plastering the interior walls up to the level of the fresco paintings with good lime render. The final touch was to commission some really excellent new furniture by the Devonshire furniture-maker, working in the Arts & Crafts tradition, Alan Peters. The result has been that the value of the building has been preserved, indeed enhanced; and has also been added to, in an exemplary way.

Questions of materials and of techniques are also crucial. The late Professor Robert Baker, who deserves to be celebrated in this context, was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of John Ruskin and William Morris - like them, he was essentially a painter - and he devised for the West Front of Wells Cathedral, now more than ten years completed, the most careful conservation programme which has respected the eroded worn character of the sculpture and of the West Front as a whole. Very little was renewed except that which was thought necessary to 'conserve the concept', and the choice of sound and authentic materials was crucial. The verdict on the approach was given by the Building Research Establishment itself, which they defined as 'tender, loving care'.

In sum, conservation philosophy can be seen either positively or negatively. It can generate much and discussion, or it can reinvigorate and inform our decision taking about the care and repair of historic buildings. There are strong arguments for acknowledging that dealing with buildings of the Modern Movement needs a different approach, beyond the scope of this article. There is much need for a standard English textbook dealing with the history and interpretation of conservation philosophy, which I hope to be able to provide. There is constant need for observation and debate, in a constructive and harmonious spirit. There are no 'goodies' and 'baddies', but there are skilful and unskilful solutions to the repair of old buildings including churches and chapels especially.


This article is reproduced from The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1995


PETER BURMAN is Director, Centre for Conservation Studies, loAAS, University of York. He teaches conservation practice and philosophy at the University of York. He is Chairman of t he Fabric Committee of St Paul's Cathedral, London, and of a building preservation trust for the North Yorkshire Moors Area. He is a member of the SPAB Committee and of the fabric committees of Durham and Lincoln Cathedrals.

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