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I remember it was a Friday night,” says Jeremy Ashbee on receiving the news that would make him question his attitude towards his profession more than any case he had previously encountered. “I remember that clearly because it ruined my weekend.”
It is not, on the face of it, the kind of news that would have many of us hurtling towards anxiety and self-doubt. The phone call came last year from the restorers of Kenwood House, Robert Adam’s masterly neoclassical villa on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath, which was freshly reopened to the public on Thursday after a £5.95m refurbishment.
The restorers had been working on the gilding in the house’s library, long regarded as one of the jewels of 18th-century English architecture. There was “bucket loads” of it, recalls Ashbee, all over the column capitals and elegant reliefs, giving the room its distinguished and distinctive character. The only problem was that it didn’t seem to be original.
The call that caused Ashbee such distress informed him they had found a layer of white lead paint under the gilding. More importantly, there was a thin film of dirt between paint and gilding. This showed that the extra layer of decoration had been added decades after Adam’s original room had been unveiled, to great acclaim, in front of Kenwood’s owner William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, in the 1760s.
“We have got to have a meeting,” Ashbee remembers telling his caller. If you are head curator of historic properties for English Heritage, such discoveries entail difficult decisions – in this case, one that would determine how Kenwood would be perceived by future generations of visitors. The technical challenge of restoring one of London’s most notable interiors had just acquired the sharpest of ethical dimensions.
Here was the dilemma: whether to make a radical change in the appearance of the library, in an attempt to evoke its original appearance; or to respect the added decoration that was added soon afterwards (“the late 18th century has a certain sacredness in its own right,” says Ashbee softly) and leave things as they were.
The debate that followed, with strong opinions on either side, according to Ashbee, reflected a longstanding controversy over restoration in Britain. Cack-handed attempts to restore things to an imagined pristine condition were sharply criticised by the likes of William Morris in the 19th century, who believed that the layers of amendment evidenced in a place or object were more important than the reproduction of its alleged original state.
I have my own views to declare here. I am one of the very few people – we are widely derided as nutters – who think that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in the 1980s and 1990s, the most important such project in recent history, proved to be a crushing disappointment, and am happy to be old enough to remember it in its previous state, when the artist’s frescoes looked more real, more subtle, and more moving. I am well aware of the arguments that were presented to justify the restoration. But they have been rebutted, with no little ferocity. In the end it comes down to taste.
Which is why one of the most important principles of restoration today is that of reversibility. When Ashbee finally made the decision to go with the plain white version of Adam’s library, there was never any question of stripping away the gilding. Instead, yet another layer of white paint was added to it, which could comfortably be removed by future historians, who may decide that the gilding did better justice to the room after all.
Ashbee says the clinching argument was that the room as seen today is a plausible version of what it looked like when Adam first unveiled it to his delighted client. This is partly a technical triumph but also a testament to a greater professional scrupulousness on the part of the restorers.
The very acknowledgment of the decision’s difficulty shows an awareness that these issues live and breathe according to the air of the times. Whatever we think, contemporary taste shapes the debate every time it is played out. It is no coincidence that the 1960s restoration of the library provided it with a thick carpet, of the kind that was in our homes of the time too. The carpet has now gone. The bare-wooded floor that we saw this week is an original feature – but it also happens to accord with fashions in interior design.
The result of all the agonising makes a fresh visit to Kenwood essential (for those not in the know, it also houses some extraordinary paintings, among them one of Rembrandt’s greatest self-portraits). The library looks lighter, in every sense. Sit in it for a few minutes, and you can hear the ghosts of all those heated domestic discussions, replaying endlessly over the decades: “Darling, I’m not saying I don’t like it. But don’t you think it is a little too white? I’ve thought of a new colour scheme . . . ” The beholders of beauty, each and every one of them, will always have their say.
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