This post is the second in an ongoing series on influential figures in the history of art conservation. Whereas in my first post in this series – on Cesare Brandi – I talked about one of the first major proponents of modern conservation, here I want to look at a figure who helped define exactly what conservation meant as a practice.
John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was and continues to be one of the most celebrated art writers of the 19th century. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture he famously and passionately equates restoration to destruction and thereby helped set in motion a debate about the care of our cultural heritage. “Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnant can be gathered: a destruction accompanied by a false description of the thing destroyed.”¹ Here Ruskin argues for the frailty of cultural objects and seeks to promote an absolutely noninvasive approach to their care. For Ruskin one should never attempt to recreate the art object as is was originally created but rather one should leave it as it exists and preserve that existence. This hands-off approach to cultural heritage was and continues to be highly influential, informing the difference between the terms restoration and conservation.
However, Ruskin’s famous comment can be easily taken out of context and understanding the historical situation that it was enmeshed within sheds light on what he meant when he vilified restoration. Ruskin’s statement was published in the wake of the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe, a time when political unrest and civic discontent was at a peak. As Chris Brooks and other architectural historians have argued, during this moment Ruskin saw within the Gothic style a potential beacon through that political turmoil; the Gothic became a symbol of freedom.² In this context, the Gothic was opposed to the Classical, where the latter was seen as representing the aristocracy and the old power structure, the former was seen as a manifestation of the creative powers of the guild system and thus of the people’s power to create. Ruskin romanticized the guild system because of how it created its cultural objects; rather than reproducing a style of that was imposed upon it—i.e. Neo-classical style—it created its own style—i.e. the Gothic style—by organizing the creative power of its members. However, because the guild system no longer existed at the time when Ruskin was writing, in his eyes, there was no way to restore the art it had created without simultaneously erasing how that art was created. In other words, Ruskin was arguing that when you restore a work of art you are changing how it was made and thus the very nature of the work itself. For Ruskin this was especially dangerous at the time because the authenticity of the Gothic style was one of the few symbols of hope in an especially trying time.
I think Ruskin’s championing of how art was made reverberates with many contemporary feelings of uncertainty about restoration. We want our art to be meaningful today and part of that meaning undoubtedly comes from how the art object was produced. Interestingly, Ruskin’s writing was the beginning of a debate which eventually led Parliament to audit all previous church restoration projects.³ What they learned from this survey was that of all the churches in England, scarcely a single one was preserved as it was originally built. Did this mean that since how the churches of England were built was lost, scarcely a church was still meaningful? Not a chance! Rather I think it suggests that part of the meaning of every cultural object invariably comes not only from how it was made but also from how it is used. While it is impossible to deny the legitimacy of the impulse to find an ultimately authentic work of art – indeed I sympathize with the survey that Parliament funded – I think that impulse washes over the contribution that using a work of art has to its meaning. Clearly those churches were maintained because people wanted to use them; they knew that without a new roof or new windows soon they would be left with more of a ruin than a serviceable church. Thus, what is highlighted by this paradox is that the function of the art object has to be balanced with the meaning we attribute to it. And it is the charge of art conservation to strike this difficult balance, for how an art object was made and how it is used often come into direct conflict. Being a conservator in the wake of this Ruskinian debate means navigating the nuances of this balance and knowing the difference between the meaning and practice of restoration and conservation.
¹Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. 1849: pp.258-259
²Brooks, Chris. The Gothic Revival. Phaidon: London, 1999, pp.303-305
³Miele, Chris. “The Gothic Revival and Gothic Architecture,” p.543. Parlimentary Accounts and Papers, “Survey of Church Building and Restoration, 1840-1875,” v. 58 1876.