The restoration question

Repair not restoration has always been my mantra when considering the renovation of old buildings. What do I mean? Well, repair is about mending with minimum loss of fabric and thus retaining character and authenticity; restoration is about returning to a perfect state, a process often based on conjecture and potentially resulting in fakery.

Taken at face value, this seems quite simple but sometimes there’s a blurring of the lines. I started considering this after coming across a letter in The Telegraph with the headline ‘Restoration removes the sweetness of old age’, written in response to an earlier article. Normally, when reading such a piece, I might have nodded in sad agreement at the writer’s comments about “how much of the place’s once inherent poetry had been lost and how little some things had changed since John Ruskin first wrote of the perils of ‘restoration’”.

But this time I wasn’t so sure. I’d been to the ‘place’, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, just over a month before when the World Monuments Fund had given me a tour. What’s more I’d been there once before, back in the 1980s when it had a decidedly shabby, municipal feel.

WMF is proud of what has been achieved at Horace Walpole’s gothic villa. WMF Watch listed in 2004, Strawberry Hill has been the recipient of $1 million of funding via the WMF Robert W Wilson Challenge to Conserve our Heritage. The house was in a bad state. Walpole built economically with timber framed external walls covered in render and years of inappropriate cement-based repairs trapped water, causing serious decay.

The reconstruction required careful dismantling and repair of parts of the structure. This, along with archival research and extensive on-site investigations, revealed much about the three principal states of the Strawberry Hill that Walpole knew during his fifty year occupation. Not least, it confirmed the sumptuousness of the house which Walpole had written about. Amongst the many items of revealed evidence, fragments of fine, glazed, worsted damasks in bright red are quite different from the later silk that hung in sad decay by 2007 when it was leased to the Strawberry Hill Trust.

According to Peter Inskip, the principal architect of the project, microscopic analysis showed that the original gilding was far richer in colour and more extensive than the inherited scheme, and joinery details had been gradually impoverished by ad hoc repairs and alterations.

“It is through these discoveries that the restoration of Strawberry Hill can recover the vision for the building that was so carefully considered by its creator,” says Inskip.

Strawberry Hill has always had a lot to do with fakery, Walpole called his castle a ‘plaything house’ and as the website states, paying a visit is a truly theatrical experience. “Magically lit by a unique collection of renaissance glass, its gloomy castle-like hall and grey gothic staircase lead dramatically to the magnificence of the gallery.”

Walpole coined the word serendipity and it is indeed by happy chance that his villa has survived to be enjoyed by future generations. The question we have to ask is, should they experience his “extraordinary vision” which, according to the original Telegraph article, “has been brought back to life”?

Image credit: World Monuments Fund


  1. Richard Salmon on January 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Shall I start the ball rolling with this one?

    I agree with you on this one, Roger.

    Extravagant internal decor, to me (maybe because I’m an engineer?), is both showy and transient. I don’t think a conservation job would have done this justice as the purpose of the renovation was to show off the building in all its historically accurate pomp. Also I would suggest the old cliche “Its what Walpole would have wanted”

    What would interest me, is if it was possibly an older property and research had found two distinctly different extravagant internal schemes – which one would you restore?

  2. Nick Miller on January 20, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I think this is the eternal bind facing the antique dealer. Goods fresh to market have all the faults and stories, the patination of age, use and abuse. For many of us, this is the optimum condition, as it is authentic, unique and cannot be replicated (although many of us have tried!).
    Restoration brings a sanitised version, correct in detail and style. Possibly what the item was meant to look like, but more often a contemporary interpretation of this. Hence we accept that oak furniture is dark and polished, not bright red and yellow as it often was in the 16th century.
    The biggest dilemma is the sadness that restoration brings, at the loss of history – that is the history of usage, rather than the historic condition of the object. At the same time, the pragmatist in me knows that buildings fall down if not repaired and that customers are less likely to want to live with furniture that is “damaged, chipped or in need of some polish”.