Women in Conservation: Hermione Hobhouse

Hermoine Hobhouse. Credit: Harriet Graham

Hermoine Hobhouse. Credit: Harriet Graham

Architectural historian Hermione Hobhouse (1934-2014) had an extremely impressive career in campaigning for building conservation. She described herself as an urban historian and journalist, and she used her considerable connections and writing talents to lobby for historic buildings, most particularly in London.

She was born in Somerset into a political family – she was descended from the social reformer Emily Hobhouse, who exposed the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer war and her father, the Liberal Arthur Hobhouse, played a key role in the establishment of national parks. After graduating from Oxford and working in television, her first book Thomas Cubitt: Master Builder (1971) won the Hitchcock Medal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

This was followed by Lost London (1972), which was published at a time when there was a growing panic about the seemingly-mindless loss of historic buildings in London to make way for redevelopment. It is a fascinating book, filled with archive photographs exposing the loss of important buildings and a shared history irretrievably lost. Turning its pages you wonder, as Hobhouse does, “How much richer would London be today, if some control had been exercised over demolition in the past hundred years?”. What would a current edition include?

Her introduction, an engaging and prophetic argument for preservation contends that “London is threatened with the grim prosepect of a Manhattan-like future, of becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor… the retention of historic buildings…can do a great deal to keep London human in scale”. On the demolition of Newgate in 1902 Hobhouse quotes the SPAB: “Those who have not already hear this will sympathise with us in our disappointment, and it really seems no building of value is safe in London”. She also decried the loss of public and open space, something which remains on the agenda for campaigners in London.

This book, and her role of secretary of the Victorian Society from 1976 to 1982, did much to inform and stimulate the public about famous losses including the Euston Arch in 1961. Under her aegis, important Victorian buildings like Linley Sambourne House in Kensington were saved and opened to the public.

Following her work at the Victorian Society, Hermione Hobhouse also served as general editor of the Survey of London between 1983-1994, which had been founded by CR Ashbee in 1894. In the 1970s she was also a tutor in Architectural History at the Architectural Association School. Her other published works included books on Regent Street, the Crystal Palace and Prince Albert.

She was appointed MBE in 1981 and was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.


Women in Conservation: Why I love my job

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked Heather Newton, a stonemason and head of conservation at Canterbury Cathedral, and Hannah Sedgwick, a building surveyor at Malcolm Hollis, what they love about their career in conservation.

Heather Newton


“There’s so much I love about what I do. It’s changed over the years, when I first started it was just working with the tools on the building. Since my job is more management now it’s working with people and helping with training. The building is glorious; every day I come into work to somewhere I love”



Hannah Sedgwick

“I like understanding how things work, so it’s curiosity mainly. I like the detective side of the job. Working out what’s gone wrong, how to fix it and what was going through the mind of those that built it in the first place”.

Celebrating Women in Conservation

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The SPAB will be celebrating International Women’s Day this week with blog posts and videos about some of the inspirational women working in the heritage and conservation sector.

We caught up with women on site, at their offices or in their workshops to find out why they love their jobs and what buildings inspire them. We talk to a stone mason, a building surveyor, a conservator, a SPAB caseworker, a writer, an architect and the head of conservation at Canterbury Cathedral.

The blog will also feature posts on some of the many women who were instrumental in furthering the conservation movement. Don’t miss a post, sign up the SPAB blog.

Coming in from the Cold War

Peter Jamieson, SPAB volunteer caseworker, and Chairman and Projects coordinator: Friends of Czech Heritage writes about a remarkable chateau conservation project deep in the Moravian countryside. This extract is taken from the SPAB Magazine, Winter 2015.

In 1938 our insular prime minister, who had barely crossed The Channel in his life uttered those famous words about a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. Tumultuous events followed, which affected both Czechoslovakia and Britain in widely different ways but often with a similar devastating affect upon the historic buildings of both countries. The War naturally took its toll but willful neglect often did more damage in the post War years.

In 1989 when the ‘Velvet Revolution’ brought Czechoslovakia in from the cold the situation was dire. The institutions responsible for historic buildings and their contents were starved of funds as the state adjusted to the new order. In 1992 the Czech Parliament passed a law that allowed ‘Czech’ citizens only to reclaim their property from the state but many estates, chateaus and other buildings were in very poor condition and had little or no income. It had been many years since they were occupied by family members, who had often been exiled and as a result contact with their past had been broken.

In those early days of opening-up contacts with the UK were established. For instance representatives from The National Trust hosted delegations from the Czech National Heritage Institute (NPU), the equivalent of English Heritage, to pass on their experience of displaying collections and running a commercial organization. Architectural history tours were organized to bring the wealth of what was on offer to a wider audience.

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View of the chateau Uhercice in Southern Moravia, 1833. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

It was out of these events that one small initiative was born with the foundation in 2007 of The Friends of Czech Heritage; a UK charity devoted to providing small ‘pump priming’ grants and working parties it attempts to give grass roots stimulation to struggling local bodies trying to conserve or repair their heritage. The charity has been involved in a variety of projects but perhaps none so haunting as the chateau of Uhercice in Southern Moravia.


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Aerial view of Uhercice. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

The chateau lies deep in the rolling Moravian countryside close to the Czech border with Austria. The implementation of borders across Europe has had a profound effect upon towns and buildings in the course of the 20th century. Originally merely part of the Czech lands of the Austrian Empire, Moravia and in particular Uhercice lay on the corridor that linked Vienna with Prague. This easygoing relationship was jeopardized by the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and frozen solid when the Iron Curtain came down leaving Uhercice in the no mans land of a military border. During the great freeze it was used variously as a state farm, woman’s reformatory prison and barracks for frontier guards. One of the towers collapsed and much of the decorative work was left in a perilous state.


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The Gate Tower at Uhercice following demolition to allow access for farm vehicles in 1973. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

Fortunately in the 1990s the quality and potential of Uhercice were recognized and in 1996 it passed into the care of the National Heritage Institute which has since undertaken a long term programme of restoration work. The roof coverings have been renewed and some of the interiors have been conserved. But progress has been slow partly on account of the ‘remoteness’ of the chateau and the limited number of visitors, which has given it a wistful Cinderella status.

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The Baroque Chamber Theatre today, with stucco work by Baldassare Fontana. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

Like many houses in the Czech lands Uhercice has passed through a succession of owners. Founded in the Middle Ages it was remodeled in the 1550s in the Renaissance style with extensive Baroque additions in the late 17th century. The Italian plasterwork of this period by Baldassare Fontana is truly spectacular. The chateau was acquired by the Collalto family, patrons of Mozart, from Northern Italy, an indication of the mobility of cultures within the Austrian Empire, who held it until they were dispossessed in 1945. Perhaps the most arresting sequence of rooms are those created in the early 19th century under the influence of Romantic Classicism, which include the Neo Classical Banqueting Hall with its extravaganza of trompe l’oeil pilaster and allegorical figures. It was this room that became a major project for the Friends of Czech Heritage mentioned above.


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The early 19th century Neo-Classical Banqueting Hall today. Josef Slavicek / Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

In 2010 attention was focused on securing the Banqueting Hall. The windows needed replacing, archaic electrics replaced but most importantly the vast decorated ceiling needed to be stabilized. Following a survey by an expert conservator it was clear that the ceiling was in danger of collapse and The Friends of Czech Heritage offered to try and raise a grant toward the cost of this work.

The ceiling was constructed of timber boarding fixed to ceiling joists with woven reed matts fixed to the boards with iron hooks. This formed the key for the two coat lime plaster, which had in many areas lost its key, become delaminated or simply fallen. The decoration had become degraded through exposure owing to the missing windows. The remedial work took a conservative approach, which generally conformed to the SPAB philosophy. The boarding and reed backing were secured using screws and washers and loose areas of plaster either fixed in the same way or by injection. Cracks were filled with lime putty and missing areas of plaster replaced to correspond to the original. The painted decoration was stabilized to prevent further deterioration but the ‘retouching’ has yet to be carried out when funds allow.

As the local guide book states : ‘We can only hope that the genius loci is stronger than time in Uhercice and the chateau will revive at least to an afterglow of its previous beauty’.

National Treasure: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Felicity Martin, SPAB’s membership and development officer, introduces the theatrical ‘reimagining’ that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. From the summer 2015 SPAB Magazine.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably my favourite new ‘old building’. It is certainly the most uncomfortable modern theatre that I’ve visited. Shakespeare’s Globe claim that it is not a reconstruction of a Jacobean playhouse but a ‘reimagining’ – what else would you expect from a theatre company?

It is a beautiful chamber, lit with almost a hundred candles in ‘branches’ (metal candelabras) and ‘wallers’ (sconces). The audience sits on three sides of a thrust stage within an oak timber frame, with a musicians’ gallery above. In the heavens, the goddess Luna is haloed with gold leaf, surrounded by pale chains of clouds, stars and cherubs. The design was inspired by a ceiling in Cullen House, Banffshire, now lost. I can reassure those wary of pastiche that there is no pretense that this is not an illusionary space – the fabric is unmistakably new and crisp, still smelling of cut wood and melting beeswax. It suits modern tastes in being quite restrained in its decoration and it was built using traditional methods with hand-carved details. Though the columns were turned with an electric lathe, its speed was slowed down making tooling marks similar to surviving Jacobean examples.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The ceiling depicts the goddess Luna surrounded by chains of clouds and cherubs. Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare's Globe.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The ceiling depicts the goddess Luna surrounded by chains of clouds and cherubs. Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare’s Globe.

At university the story I heard was that in 1960s some documents fell out of a book in the library at Worcester College, Oxford, found to be the earliest existing drawings of an indoor English theatre. At the time these were thought to be by Inigo Jones (Sam Wanamaker built the external brick shell based on this in the 1990s) but current thinking attributes them to one of Jones’ assistants, John Webb, from rather later in about 1660. The drawings do not illustrate technical plans but were probably a rough design of an indoor theatre, based on those of a generation earlier, well before the footlights of the Restoration. Jon Greenfield and Allies and Morrison drew their inspiration from these and surviving buildings of the period to complete the theatre, which opened in January 2014. The hope at the Globe is that this ‘reimagining’ is one that Shakespeare and his contemporaries might recognize.

As with the Globe, this theatre was designed and built to experiment with ‘authentic’ performance, not only of Shakespeare but also for staging the darker English genius present in the Jacobean revenge tragedies or the raucous satire of the City comedies. We know that moving indoors changed the structure of plays, introducing intervals to trim the candlewicks. For the dramatists it also posed possibilities of lighting and sound effects which must have influenced their writing: would the fury of The Tempest be heard outside or the dark shadows of The Duchess of Malfi be seen in daylight?

Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare's Globe.

Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare’s Globe.

I must admit that a great part of the magic of this theatre for me is the candlelight. In our electric world the warm glow is festive and evokes the rituals of religious practices. The flames are reflected in the sumptuous details: the ruffs, the pearlescent makeup, the creases in pale silk and the starry ceiling.

The intimacy of the space is deceptive; bodies are tightly packed, the actors brush past, candles sometimes drip and the darkness – when it is used – is startlingly complete. The acoustics are crisp and allows the more delicate period instruments to sing out.

The physical experience is at complete odds with our modern audience expectations – you are likely to enjoy a restricted view of the stage, limited space, relatively dim light and unchanging scenery. The actors are unencumbered with microphones or a curtain to hide behind and yet they are their own lighting technicians. All focus is on the words and music, on gesture and tone. While the performances might be more historically informed, the building suits our modern taste for the immersive, multi-sensory entertainment experience. Though the building is new, it helps us to imagine another time.