The Fountain Society Awards

Jill Channer

Awards act as a showcase for good practice, they provide recognition for the work of all involved in a project and, by highlighting the best, they encourage others to strive for higher standards. For the winner, the publicity can also open the door to more commissions and more interesting projects – fame, if not fortune. In this article Jill Channer outlines the role of one competition from the perspective of an assessor.

The Fountain Society champions the cause of fountains, cascades and water-features of aesthetic merit for public and domestic enjoyment. It works to promote the provision of new fountains and to secure the restoration of those that have fallen into decay.

One of the ways the society promotes its work is through awards to encourage fountaineering and to recognise and reward good practice. In 2001, the award was for the ‘best new fountain, cascade or water feature’. In 2004 it was for the ‘best restoration of a fountain, cascade or water feature in the last five years’. Both were funded by the Marsh Christian Trust.


The first question the society addressed to all applicants was whether the subject is a fountain, cascade or water feature. For someone more used to the theological agonies of debating the difference between restoration and conservation, the society’s robust view of restoration seemed wonderfully straightforward and these semantic distinctions to be somewhat puzzling.

There were only three other qualifying criteria for applicants – public access, the completion of the restoration within a specified time frame (five years before the end of 2003) and that it should demonstrably be in working order.

To assist the committee to assess the extent of the restoration, applicants were asked for illustrations showing the water feature when it was originally created and fully operational, and more recent examples of it in action. They were also asked for photographs showing the fountain before and after restoration. It was really surprising how few applicants were able to provide even the most basic photographic record or information from historic sources.

Assessing the quality of the restoration on paper submissions to establish a shortlist was a challenge, so applicants were asked to demonstrate their perception of the process by describing what the restoration had involved. Many of the restorations had resulted from successful Heritage Lottery Fund applications to transform entire public parks, so we made it clear we expected the applicants to focus on presenting us with the restoration of their water feature.

Nevertheless, many sent their original compendious HLF submission. As one of the criteria for selection was that the restored water feature should be accessible to the public, the committee had to acknowledge that some technical improvements to satisfy modern safety requirements were acceptable, such as filtration and water treatment to maintain high water quality. Nor would the introduction of contemporary technology (such as anemometer controls to reduce water volumes to avoid water splashing the public in high winds) detract from the assessment of the accuracy of the restoration.

The committee’s main concern was faithfulness to the original concept of the water feature and, above all, the visual effect of the water display itself - including the overall appearance of any fountain sculptures.

Finally, the committee was looking for important or significant restorations and asked that applicants draw our attention to these aspects, and indeed any others that would assist us in selecting their submission. To this end the committee was concerned to discover how technical or other problems had been analysed and resolved for the future during this restoration, and disturbed at how sparse the record of these discoveries and other aspects of the restoration was.

It was important that the restorers handed on what they had done to those responsible for running and maintaining the restored water feature in the future. In retrospect, the most difficult effect of the restoration to capture, and the most unexpected to me, was the sound the different modes of these very different water features made.

A short list of six was selected on a points system using the criteria detailed above and set out in the guidance notes for applicants. Every one on the short list was visited by me and at least one other member of the awards committee elected by the Fountain Society. Each visit was notified to the applicant who was asked to meet us on site, and we were delighted to be shown such varied achievements by such informative and enthusiastic guides.

It was very difficult to have to chose a winner, and in the end we selected three for awards. The committee hopes that some of the prize money will be used to provide information on site about the fountain, its rescue and restoration to inform an appreciative and admiring public.

1. Vivary Park, Taunton, Somerset

The restoration of this exuberantly vulgar cast iron extravaganza involved shot blasting and the introduction of a modern system of water supply and management.

There is an identical fountain at Torbay, which is also the responsibility of a local authority, but the Taunton ‘restoration’ involved no contacts with Torbay to share experiences, and no research was carried out into the original colour scheme.

The photograph shows the inspection covers for the new system, which were unfortunately prominently sited. A piece of plastic piping used to extend the overflow is also just visible on the left. (Since then the inspection covers have been re-sited following repairs.)

2. Hubert Fountain, Victoria Park, Ashford, Kent

This astonishingly sophisticated, and alarmingly peripatetic, masterpiece of the high style of French fountaineering has had a curious and dramatic history since its founding and exhibition in Paris in 1880.

It is now camped out in a neglected and indefensible context, vulnerable to vandalism and graffiti.

The restoration involved complete dismantling, and it is unfortunate that an opportunity was missed to relocate it to the distinguished urban context it deserves.

Ashford is a gateway to Paris, thanks to the Eurostar rail link, and this extraordinary survival could have become a focus of wonder and welcome. As it is, it is served by an inelegantly sited control box and the surface treatment of the restored sculpture has unfortunately not been a success.

3. Vernon Park, Stockport, Cheshire

All the water features in this complex public park vanished during World War II and have been lovingly recreated from photographs and memories.

This fountain is a most endearing hybrid, its elements having been selected from catalogues. The result is a contemporary and rather eccentric evocation of its predecessor, not a restoration.

4. Venus Fountain, Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

This was the most scholarly and most unexpected ‘restoration’ of all the submissions.

It is a meticulously researched recreation of a long lost feature that was once the focus of a very special space.

The project was based on gathering exhaustive archaeological information about the 17th century technology that originally delivered the water, combined with a daring speculative reconstruction of all the component parts of this unique fountain.

English Heritage could then have decided to publish its findings and leave it at that.

However, it had the courage to actually recreate the daringly wicked iconography of this extraordinary and unique water feature and, after an absence of 300 years, the stunning sound of this shocking fountain yet again fills the pleasure court for visitors to share, transforming the space it has haunted as a fragment of its former glory for so long.

We awarded English Heritage a special commendation and a third award for this unusual and courageous achievement.

5. Grand Vista, Battersea, London.

A tour de force of imaginative fountaineering, this exceptionally impressive restoration of the well researched and recorded experience of the 1951 Pleasure Gardens, incorporates a watery tribute to a lost dimension of the original design, the ‘Crystal Palace’ feature.

The sound and the spectacle have captured and beguiled a whole new generation and audience for this refreshing reinterpretation and restoration of a lost modern masterpiece – with added energy.

We had no reservation in offering Wandsworth Borough Council the accolade of joint first prize.

6. Poseidon Fountain, Witley Court, Oxfordshire

This project was, without a doubt, the most spectacular and painstaking restoration of any fountain in the United Kingdom for a century.

Originally created as a conspicuous and stunningly impressive display of extraordinary wealth to amuse and entertain a coal magnate’s guests, this complex creation has always possessed the ‘wow!’ factor.

After over 60 years of abandoned dereliction since the mansion was destroyed by fire, the present custodian, English Heritage, has gone to exceptional lengths to recreate the landscaped arena and planted setting of the display, as well as the show itself.

To replace the reservoir which released 4,000 gallons from half a mile away to power a central jet over 120 feet high – said to be the highest in Britain – English Heritage has brought the water 11/4 miles by a new pipeline and used state of the art technology to reproduce the central jet and surrounding set pieces.

The computer programme which controls the display has been configured to enhance its climactic impact, which plays every hour when the grounds are open, and English Heritage has generously taken the opportunity to create four additional programmes for the enjoyment of the public.

As with descriptions of the effect of the original jet, the shock and awe of the experience can be felt physically and remembered a lifetime. The necessary anonometer, pumping station and control mechanisms are skilfully and thoughtfully concealed in the landscape.

The skill with which this was done and the exemplary repair of the elaborate sculpture combine to make this a sure fire winner.