Morris and the Prince
Having just written a new guide to Kelmscott Manor, your diarist has a growing admiration for William Morris, whose country home this was. Morris was a true radical, and his ideas continue to reverberate, having now caused a rift between HRH The Prince of Wales and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (the SPAB).
Morris founded the SPAB in 1877 to protect ancient buildings, like Kelmscott Manor, from over-restoration. The SPAB’s manifesto, which every would-be member has to sign, is one of the best statements of conservation philosophy ever penned – remarkably, Morris scribbled it down on the back of an envelope as he travelled to Broadway with his family by horse-drawn carriage, angered at what he had just seen going on in the name of ‘restoration’ in Burford parish church.
Morris loved the accumulation of architecture from many periods that adds to the interest of so many churches. He firmly believed that additions to ancient buildings should be ‘of their own time’ and he deplored the mid-19th century habit of trying to copy the past, which he described as a ‘kind of forgery’.
Prince Charles has equally strong views about architecture. In a foreword for the SPAB’s Old House Handbook (a guide to repairing and caring for old buildings written by Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr), he argued forcefully that historic buildings should be restored and extended using traditional styles, techniques and materials. The SPAB pointed out that this was inconsistent with its commitment to ‘good, new design rather than reliance on past styles’. Prince Charles, believing that ‘contemporary’ is often synonymous with ugly and unsympathetic, took the view that he was being censored, withdrew the foreword and chose not to renew his Patronage of the SPAB when it expired last year.
Morris would have enjoyed this battle of ideas, and would be proud of his successors for sticking to his principles and theirs. Not for nothing are the trustees of the SPAB officially known as ‘Guardians’.
The battle for the soul of Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square has become the setting for another clash of ideologies. National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny deplores the ‘bloody awful’ state of the square, and says that loud music and loutish behaviour are destroying the Gallery’s tranquillity. Artist Antony Gormley, by contrast, relishes ‘the clash of classical versus street culture’ and says ‘what you have in front of the gallery are the waves of real life washing against history’. He concedes, though, that Penny has a point in that ‘silence and contemplation are necessary for engaging in beauty in all its forms: the livelier the street is, the more the silence of the National Gallery becomes precious’.
Which is precisely the problem: even more than the tide of litter and beer cans washing against the National Gallery’s walls, and the people climbing the lions and the reliefs on Nelson’s Column, Nicholas Penny deplores the way that amplified music from the square can be heard and felt in the galleries.
Stone on stone
The scene in the square was considerably calmer at 1:00 am in the morning of 29 July 2009 when archaeologist Mike Pitts (well know to CA readers as a former contributor and now editor of the CBA’s British Archaeology magazine) became one of 2,400 ‘living artworks’ to participate in Antony Gormley’s One & Other project on the empty fourth plinth. As he was lifted on to the Aberdeen granite plinth, Mike used the opportunity to exhibit ten stone artefacts that represent key moments in British history. The earliest of Mike’s symbolic stones was a flint flake from Pakefield, site of the earliest known occupation of Britain 700,000 years ago, and the most recent was ‘Mia’s stone’, donated by Mike’s two-year-old daughter and representing future generations. Read all about it (and listen to interviews that Mike gave to the BBC) on Mike Pitts’ website (http://mikepitts.wordpress.com/the-plinth/).
And the fifth
Archaeologist Mark Horton reminds us that there was once a fifth plinth in Trafalgar Square, supporting a statue of Edward Jenner (1749–1823), the pioneer of smallpox vaccination and father of immunology, whose garden in Berkeley, Glos, Mark has been excavating for several summers looking for evidence of the Saxon royal minster. Mark is supporting a Downing Street petition (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Jenner2010/) calling for the statue of Jenner to be returned to the square from its exile in Kensington Gardens – it was moved there in the 1880s – in time for the 30th anniversary of the worldwide eradication of smallpox in 2010. ‘Jenner,’ says Mark, ‘has saved more lives than anyone else in history.’
No more silly walks
Regular readers will know that your diarist relishes the excesses of Health and Safety and collects examples of their impact on all aspects of the heritage. Now ‘Elfin Safety’ has struck the very highest in the land: the centuries-old practice whereby ambassadors, servants and guests were expected to walk backwards when departing from a visit to the Queen has, to coin a phrase, hit the carpet, because royal aides fear that someone will fall over and sue Buckingham Palace for damages.
Your diarist rather assumed that someone who shows such deference to the Queen that they will risk tripping over a corgi or bumping into a table full of Sèvres porcelain, would also have the reverence to assume that any such accident was their own fault: to sue the palace does seem a might presumptuous. But, from now onwards, only two people will be expected to walk backwards as they exit the Queen’s presence: the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps and the Queen’s Equerry – who will be given special training in ‘walking backwards safely and discreetly’ (and you thought the Ministry of Silly Walks was just a fiction).
An ancient falcon’s nest and other tales of longevity
One of the great pleasures of the spring is the annual return of the swifts, swallows and martins whose remarkable navigational skills enable them to return to the same nesting sites generation after generation. Just how old some of these nesting sites can be was revealed when Kurt Burnham, of the University of Oxford, discovered a falcon’s nest in Greenland that is 2,500-years-old. Three other nests, each over 1,000 years old, have been found on the same cliff-edge site, the evidence of their longevity coming from carbon dates obtained from a section of accumulated feathers and guano. Remarkably, these are not the oldest dated nests: carbon dating has also shown that snow petrels have returned to the same sites for 34,000 years, while Adélie Penguins have been hatching their eggs on the same rocky shores of the Antarctic’s Ross Sea for 44,000 years.
By contrast, ‘the world’s oldest potted plant’ is a mere stripling, at just 234 years of age. The Encephalartos altensteninii, a cycad native to southern Africa, was first planted at Kew in 1775 and has been growing at an average rate of 17mm a year. It has now reached some 4m in height and was recently moved because it had outgrown its pot. Kew staff said the long-lived plant is probably still only half way through its natural life.
In the same vein comes news of a 9,000-year-old beer from the Dogfish Brewery in Delaware. That’s an awful long time to wait for your beer to brew, but in this case it is the recipe that is ancient, rather than the beer. Based on residues found by archaeologists in Neolithic jars at the village of Jiahu, in Henan province in central China, the beer is fermented for a month from a blend of rice, honey, grapes, hawthorn fruit and chrysanthemum flowers. Apparently the result is ‘very smooth’ and ‘not too sweet’.
How many skulls did Oliver Cromwell possess?
Westminster Abbey suffered an infestation of carpet moths earlier this summer and so the rugs were moved into a deep freeze cabinet as an eradication measure. Their temporary removal produced an unexpected bonus for visitors who, for three months, were able to view the normally hidden slab that covers Oliver Cromwell’s grave.
Cromwell was laid to rest in the abbey in September 1658, in a ceremony modelled on the funeral of James I. His perpetual rest was interrupted three years later when, after the Restoration, he was dug up and ‘executed’, then reburied in quicklime at the foot of the Tyburn gallows. But bits of Cromwell’s body seem to have escaped the lime pit: an inventory entry records the donation of ‘Cromwell’s wart’ to the Society of Antiquaries, though the wart itself has long since disappeared, as has a death mask and skull claimed as Cromwell’s that was once part of the collection at the Ashmolean. According to tradition, his decapitated skull was stuck on a spike outside Westminster Hall for some 25 years after the ‘execution’ and was later retrieved by a sentry. This was later displayed for money in a London sideshow, but was probably not the skull that came to light in the 1990s in a family collection in Kent because here the skull had been pierced from above rather than impaled from within.
The skull with the best claim to be Cromwell’s, according to former Ashmolean Keeper Arthur MacGregor, was exhibited at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in 1911, when it was said still to have part of a spike embedded in the bone. That skull was buried in 1960 in the courtyard of Cromwell’s old college, Sidney Sussex at Cambridge, in an unmarked spot to dissuade souvenir hunters.