Wimpole Tower, the artificial ruin

Wimpole Tower was built to proclaim the grandeur of a noble landowner from a hilltop. How, after years of decay, it speaks out once again, writes Donald Insall.
To the observant viewer, every building speaks. Today indeed, many buildings even shout – especially those demanded as publicity for commercial organisations –  for that is the spirit of our age. “My creator…” some of them shriek ,” is bursting with originality, and will design and erect for you a magnet for every eye, crushing its competitors,  defying apparent gravity, trumpeting your name and products…”

An earlier eye-catcher, with specifically that function in mind but in an utterly different spirit, was the landscape feature of the 18th-century Picturesque Movement – notably the Artificial Ruin. Perhaps deceitful, yet more often rather witty and tongue-in-cheek, its aim and message were to delight the sensitivities of the educated visitor. And in doing so, also to commend the wealth, knowledge and scholarship of a noble landowner, hinting at his lineage and history, underlining the passage of time, and with it the continuity and tranquillity of his country seat.

c-engraving-of-gothic-tower-cap-brown-1768-1

A 1777 engraving of the gothic tower at Wimnpole. Artist unknown.

Such a feature, set among trees on a hilltop and axially linked with its architectural parent, is the Gothic Tower at Wimpole, just outside Cambridge. Originally the inspiration of architect Sanderson Miller, who sketched the idea for Lord Hardwicke in 1749, this came to reality (or perhaps, a rather special variant of reality) a quarter of a century later in the hands of the ubiquitous Capability Brown and his friend James Essex, and rapidly took its place in the locality’s designed landscape.

Wimpole Tower before.jpg

Wimpole Tower, before works. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

As in every building, life and change continued. In 1805 the Estate adapted the interior of the Tower to provide accommodation for a gamekeeper and his family, introducing additional floors and enclosed the wooden stair, while outside and within the curtilage some lean-to structures were added as home for farm stock. Meanwhile, the hand of real time and decay was now adding to the original theme of ruination – history was gradually taking over.

With changing fortunes in 1976, the Estate came into the hands of the National Trust. By then the little hilltop folly was overgrown, rabbit-riddled and in increasingly unsafe condition, demanding immediate emergency repairs. More recently still, and thanks in part to DEFRA’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (administered by Natural England) and to legacies and donations, it became possible to allocate more funds.  With these came an opportunity for increased care.

conservators-working-on-ne-turret-1

Conservators from Cliveden Conservation working on the repair and consolidation of Wimpole’s north-east turret wall. Credit: Donald Insall Associates

A fresh study and conservation plan were commissioned, including archaeological and historical research and investigations into local social history, and into onsite technical aspects such as the design of lost elements, as well as practical matters like stonework decay and cleaning. All of these brought unusual challenges of both a philosophical and practical kind. For here we were dealing not with an ancient structure scarred by battle, but with a consciously-created and retrospectively-built image of a non-existent earlier history, itself gathering evidence of a life of its own.

Luckily, limited available archive material came to our aid, and was reinforced by the tangible evidence onsite. The walls of the Tower and its flanking lesser sisters and compound had been built mainly in red brickwork, but faced-up with ashlar in the soft chalky limestone known as clunch.  Typically, this had proved highly porous and vulnerable, and had suffered erosion and lamination of its outer weather-surfaces, and heavy losses in the remaining vestiges of the crenellated crown.

S tower and curtain walls

Wimpole Tower after conservation. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

Practical cleaning trials were carried out, and led to a traditional solution of removing vegetation, brushing of loose and friable stonework, raking-out open joints and repointing.  In this, and using naturally hydraulic lime, four specified mortar mixes were employed, matching the respective requirements of deep  walling-voids,  the repointing of backing brickwork and of fine facing stonework, and lastly of wall-capping and rainwork run-off areas.

Finally a limewash mix was applied to individual stones, but without disturbing any which retained their protective surface and were lichen-covered. Where a minimum of replacement stone was needed and was unavailable on site local stone was selected from a quarry at Barrington (since alas, closed). Special care was taken in painstaking examination of faint archive photographs of the remaining  and exposed stonework at the tower top, where Chilmark stone from Chicksgrove has proved a happy neighbour for the clunch ashlar; and the weather is already assisting in a happy marriage. Throughout the works, a close liaison was maintained between client, curators and within the specialist team, the highly able contractors engaged being Cliveden Conservation. An active programme of works tours, arranged from an access scaffolding, attracted a great deal of public interest and involvement.

The Gothic Tower is now accessible to visitors and serves as a major landscape feature over a remarkable area, contributing in a very real way to the Grade I registered park and garden at Wimpole today. Thanks to a detailed entry by the National Trust, the project has been not only awarded a 2016 European Union Prize but also celebrated as a Grand Prix winner for the UK, announced in Madrid to an international audience by Europa Nostra’s President, Maestro Placido Domingo, who said: “At a time when the European Union is confronted with many political, economic and social challenges, this initiative has a very special meaning. Cultural heritage, indeed, connects people across generations and across borders, generates economic growth and fosters social inclusion.”

In the words of the jury:”Intellectually, this project raises interesting questions about the preservation of a designed ruin and inspires thoughts about the nature of conservation.  It is informed by detailed research and archaeological recordings and is a model of cooperative endeavour. This Grand Prix is awarded in recognition of this diligent work”
So, the Wimpole Tower now “speaks” again.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is one of the benefits of SPAB membership.

Advertisements

On Ruskin’s Birthday

ruskin-watercolour-belonging-to-spab

On this day 198 years ago John Ruskin was born. One hundred and forty years ago this March William Morris formed the SPAB. Ruskin’s influence was instrumental in the founding of the SPAB.

An innovative thinker, art critic and philosopher, John Ruskin’s writings laid the foundations for the conservation and Arts & Crafts movements. His writings on restoration profoundly affected William Morris. Morris took Ruskin’s passion and philosophies and turned them into action.

In Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory” from the Seven Lamps of Architecture he writes: “Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end… Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves swept in time out of a water-course, will save both roof and walls from ruin. Watch over an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation”

Of old buildings he said “We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generation of mankind who are to follow us”

Launched by a letter to the Athenaeum in March 1877 the SPAB was set up to become Ruskin’s watchdog. With an impressive committee including leading artists and figures of national importance, including Ruskin himself, the Society began campaigning against restoration and demolition of old buildings. During the Society’s first year a campaign was launched to save Wren’s City churches. By autumn 1879 the SPAB was busily campaigning to save the west front of St Marks in Venice from harsh treatment.

Ruskin’s influence can be seen in the SPAB Manifesto written by William Morris and Philip Webb, in 1877:“put Protection in place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof…show now pretence of other art.” Morris closes his Manifesto, which is still followed by the Society today, with an impassioned plea to protect our ancient buildings for those that come after us.