Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, 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; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; 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. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.