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When we think of what it means to ‘preserve’ heritage, the idea of conservation (in its most traditional sense) is never far behind. Immediately we may think of the physical aspect of this: cleaning and regilding lettering on a memorial or adding structural support to a caving roof. This can be achieved through multiple approaches, one of which is the creation of illusion, sometimes even an attempt to remove evidence of aging from the equation; this is usually the case with artworks such as paintings, where the goal is to view the piece as it was immediately after the artist downed their brush. Through this, the purpose of the object becomes oriented around its aesthetic (so that the visual is in keeping with what it was before deteriorating) rather than any historical data. Another contrasting approach to this is to preserve more historical data by keeping the original parts, while giving obvious evidence of the conservation that has taken place. Instead of aiming to maintain and reinstate a seamless, purely visual sense of the object, a conservation team might decide to show the object’s material history through what is missing as well as the original elements present. A fitting example of this is the ’Sutton Hoo Helmet’, an Anglo-Saxon battle headpiece, excavated from Suffolk, UK in 1939. Housed in the British museum, the fragments of the original are installed within a reconstruction of the rest of the helmet, to show them in their broader context. In a short video about the head, British Museum curator Sue Brunning explained: ‘The way that [it was] pieced together was by matching the curvature and thickness of those fragments and finding joins here whenever [possible] to create this piecemeal approach to the helmet, pinning those pieces onto a plasticene head’… ‘What we have here is a blend of modern and original pieces’. (The British Museum, 2021, 00:02:36). Although there is a sense of seeing a whole object, the difference in colour and texture between the reproduction material and real pieces is certainly noticeable. What both methods have in common is the goal of accessing and interacting with an object, but, in general, the terms of engagement in preserving an object tend to fall into the aforementioned categories: one being cognitive understanding and preservation of an object through historical accuracy, the other appreciation of an object as an aesthetic experience, that doesn’t emphasise time but holds value through the senses. 


Where Heritage charities and organisations (deliberately or inadvertently) may have aimed to stick to just one ethos previously, Witley Court and Gardens, in Worcestershire, UK is the perfect example of a combination of methodologies. Now owned by English Heritage, falls into the category of a ‘preserved ruin’. The Italianate style mansion began with a Jacobean house and gradually evolved, with its generations of owners coming in and out of money, adding entire wings and features fashionable at their time of occupancy. With the financial decline of its last family in the 1920s, the expansive house and gardens fell into disrepair, its final blow a fire that destroyed the central and eastern sections of the house. With insufficient insurance money to repair the damage, Witley was auctioned off, with the vast majority of its contents stripped, sold or stolen (English Heritage, 2022). My connection to Witley was through working on site as a property steward; one of the most common questions from visitors was if and when the property would be restored to its once lavish state. There was usually an air of disappointment when I explained that, ‘although it would be lovely, a big part of why we wouldn’t is financial’ and that that ‘it would, for all intents and purposes keep decaying over time’. There had been discussion for a while within English Heritage, but all aspects considered it was decided that the majority Witley should be left ‘as is’ and even held more historical value in this state (or rather, maintained to look consistent in its ruined appearance). The exception to this was a spectacle that the house had become well known for, its ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ fountain, a large pool and central statue, carved by James Forsyth and installed 1860 for the first earl of Dudley. In 2016 it underwent full cleaning and restoration to its original working state complete with the 120 jets that fuelled its striking reputation. Viewing the fresh Portland stone against the backdrop of the house was a strange experience: if I squinted, it was almost possible to pretend that the sprawling remains of the house were in fact complete like the fountain, with a blink returning them to the present shell. At the time, this inconsistency between these elements of the site was a point of slight frustration to me, but since it has become food for thought. A variety of types of preservation within a site doesn’t have to be a mark of compromise, but genuine merit. If its ability to tell a story is what we value, then Witley’s is arguably even more alive with a mix of aesthetic and historical documentation. It speaks of the opulence of a fountain created for purely visual appreciation, and a house that, due to this same opulence was unable to be restored. We can observe both sides.



We know, we know how all too bright

The hues are that our painting wears,

And how the marble gleams too white;--

We speak in unknown tongues, the years

Interpret everything aright,


And crown with weeds our pride of towers,

And warm our marble through with sun,

And break our pavements through with flowers,

With an Amen when all is done,

Knowing these perfect things of ours.


'Builders of Ruins' (Meynell, 1875).


A view through the doorways of Witley Court (Worcestershire, UK) onto the South facing garden and famed 'Perseus and Andromeda' fountain.

Photo by Vianne Furey (2020).

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