English Heritage conservator Ann Katrin Koester at work at Kenwood House

Heritage Turns 100

24th May 2013

This year, in a series of exhibitions at the Wellington Arch’s Quadriga Gallery, English Heritage marks the 100th anniversary of a special event. The passing of the Ancient Monuments Act 1913 recognised that the state has a responsibility to step in to save the physical remains of the nation’s history. It’s all too easy to forget how significant this was, says Jack Watkins.

I nearly choked on my bran flakes when reading an item in the daily newspaper the other morning. A government minister – who may remain nameless since they are merely representative of the entire imagination deficit at the top – said that the focus of culture ‘in an age of austerity’ had to be on its economic impact and the ‘healthy dividends that our investment [in the arts] continues to pay’. Do these people never stop considering pounds and pence? Have they no appreciation of art and culture as something whose value extends beyond mere financial gain, and how our attitude towards it says so much about us as civilised – and civilising – human beings?

Current thinking leans towards a massive relaxation of planning laws (and personnel cutbacks in planning departments are already happening) and there will surely be inevitable ‘heritage casualties’ as a result. But before we get too steamed up about the current state of affairs, it’s worth taking a deep breath and remembering what it was like at the turn of the twentieth century. Back then, the likes of Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall – never mind that cosy little Georgian cottage the end of the road, or the majestic town hall with the huge clock tower, or the elegant village church with the soaring spire: these things that add so much to the fabric of daily life – had no proper protection at all. Conserve an ancient castle, a ruined monastery or a grassed over earthwork? What? Are you out of your mind? The thing was scarcely heard of, unless you were a wealthy antiquarian or eccentric.

All that changed one hundred years ago, with the passing of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, a statute which for the first time empowered the government to intervene on private property to protect sites deemed part of our national heritage. This historic event is being marked by English Heritage – a body whose origins, even though it was not actually formed until 1984, are traceable to the Act – with the publication of a new book, written by its chief executive Simon Thurley (Men from The Ministry: How Britain Saved Its Heritage,Yale, available from 28 May).

Meanwhile, throughout the year, a series of exhibitions at the Quadriga Gallery, in the Wellington Arch at London’s Hyde Park Corner, also trace the story from its earliest stirrings – which gathered speed in the mid-19th century as Darwinism awakened an increased realisation of the significance of pre-history – through to the passing of the 1913 Act, and on to the way the wider population developed its taste for conservation issues.

The new book is perhaps the first major attempt to tell the story of preserving our built heritage in an ‘accessible’ way, and it’s interesting to note that lobbying for the protection of buildings happened concurrently with the growth of the green spaces movement, the 1913 anniversary celebrations coming a year after the National Trust marked the centenary of the death of one of its own founders, Octavia Hill.

It would be slightly misleading to say that no-one appreciated the impact of old monuments before the Victorians, of course. The paintings of JMW Turner and the novels of Sir Walter Scott show how people have long engaged with them in an emotional and romantic way. But as regards actually protecting these things, real momentum didn’t get going until towards the end of the 19th century. And after that, when it came to the Act itself, the great driving force was Lord Curzon.

The ex-viceroy of India had been the restorer of the Taj Mahal. He was a grand imperial figure, and John Singer Sargeant painted him looking resplendent in the robes of the Order of the Indian Empire. Back in England, in 1911, he had saved Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, considered the finest example of medieval brickwork in the country. Having been put on the market, a consortium of American businessmen had removed the fireplaces, which had been considered so fine that they had been used as models for the Palace of Westminster. There were fears that the whole building would be dismantled brick by brick and shipped off to the US. Curzon not only bought the castle, but used the affair to argue for stronger protection for historic buildings: ‘just as valuable in reading the record of the past as any manuscript or parchment deed’.

The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act soon followed, introducing the idea of compulsory preservation orders, and making it a criminal offence to inflict damage on a scheduled monument. It also brought into guardianship a wider range of important sites, including Lindisfarne Priory, an atmospheric centre of early Christianity. In fact, in the first twenty years after 1913, no fewer than two hundred and twenty nine monuments would be brought into the care of the Office of Works.

Many, including great old medieval abbeys such as Rievaulx and Furness, were in appalling condition and needed immediate attention and repair. But alongside this emergency work grew the idea of encouraging the public to visit. This was the great age of the railway poster, and places such as Goodrich Castle lent themselves to alluring depictions. The emphasis in the presentation of these properties however, was education, not entertainment – and certainly not how much cash could be squeezed out of them to satisfy the Treasury. Out of all this grew the National Heritage Collection, a marvellous outdoor museum of something like 880 monuments which has kept on growing, so that alongside the likes of Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall, there are now industrial sites and even nuclear bunkers. I plan to visit one or two this summer, and if I see any ministers there (highly unlikely, let’s face it), I shall give them a piece of my mind.

'A Monumental Act: How Britain Saved its Heritage' is at Wellington Arch, London until 7 July. 'Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage' by English Heritage's Simon Thurley is published at the end of May.

For more information on the work of English Heritage and the
Heritage Centenary, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

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