Last edited 19 Feb 2021

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Restoration v repair

The work of the antiquaries Henry Cotton and James Graves in Ireland highlights the Victorian debate about the hazards of restoration by those tempted to make architectural improvements.

The chancel arch of the Nuns’ Church, Clonmacnoise, drawn by Jonas Blaymire in 1738, in an engraving from Walter Harris’s 'The Whole works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland revised and improved', Volume 1 (Dublin 1739).

Many modern architects cite the charter of Venice (1964) in arguing that repairs to the fabric of ‘historic monuments’ should be contrastive in a very obvious way. While John Ruskin (1819–1900) formulated a similar doctrine for St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in 1877: ‘The single principle is, that after any operation whatsoever necessary for the safety of a building, every external stone should be set back in its original place: if any are added to strengthen the walls, the new stones, instead of being made to resemble the old ones, should be left blank of sculpture…’, he did not originate it. Indeed, he had memorably written in ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ in 1849: ‘Do not let us then talk of restoration. The thing is a lie from beginning to end’, a position which he maintained for almost 30 years.

Rather it was formulated by Ruskin’s contemporaries in the Oxford and Cambridge university architectural/archaeological societies, both founded in 1839. Given that an objective of these societies was to advise clergy and their architects in conserving ecclesiastical buildings in use and protecting ruinous structures from collapse, in 1851 they proposed to publish an article in ‘The Ecclesiologist’ challenging Ruskin’s remark. However, the chosen author – Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–92) of the Oxford Architectural Society – decided instead to write a critical but useful book, ‘The Preservation and Restoration of Ancient Monuments’ (1852), published by his OAS colleague John Henry Parker (1806–84). In it Freeman stated: ‘I believe Mr Ruskin stands absolutely alone in his extreme and chimerical view of rejecting all restoration’.

Curiously, the practice of differentiating replacement stones had been in use in Ireland since the restoration of a section of the Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary in 1848/49. We might examine how this came about. The work was supervised by the archdeacon, the English-born Rev Henry Cotton MRIA (1789– 1879), who was a noted historian, educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, before serving as sub-librarian at the Bodleian in 1814–22. Significantly, the principles of minimum intervention he espoused for the project completely accord with modern practice and indeed predate the earliest conservation work of Cotton’s friend the Rev James Graves (1815–86) by almost a decade.

The work, necessitated by the catastrophic collapse in February 1848 of the entrance doorway to the cathedral and the roofless medieval palace overhead, was the subject of a pamphlet issued by Cotton three months later. In seeking donations, he drew particular attention to his proposed methodology, stating: ‘The Lord Bishop of Cashel has expressed his wish that an endeavour should be made not at restoration (a hazardous attempt in these days of almost universal desire to dabble in architectural improvements), but at judicious repair, so as to prevent further damage’. Among the handful of trustees nominated by Cotton to receive donations for the project was John Henry Parker of Oxford. Cotton’s placing of the words ‘restoration’ and ‘repair’ in italics suggests a familiarity with the debate in England and he was probably advised by Parker on methodology from the outset.

A guidebook of 1888 noted that: ‘The cut stone archway over the door was very much injured; but each stone was carefully restored to its place… three new stones being only supplied; half the porch had to be then restored, and it was carefully done’. These interventions are still distinguishable on close examination today, both in the vaulted ceiling of the porch and in the jambs of the doorcase, where the aforementioned three stones are carved in such a way as to contrast with the reused blocks. The damage to the reinstated voussoirs is also evident, many of the arrises being chipped from the collapse but not repaired.

The best-known example of early progressive conservation in Ireland occurred in the 1860s at the monastic site of Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, where the works carried out by the Kilkenny and South East Archaeological Society (KAS), progenitor of the Royal Society of the Antiquaries of Ireland, under the direction of its honorary secretary James Graves, also accorded with modern principles. Graves was the rector of Ennisnag, a small country parish, but also the treasurer of the medieval cathedral of St Canice, of which he had written a history. In the decades after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Clonmacnoise and the Rock of Cashel, the crown jewels of Irish ecclesiastical patrimony, associated with the kings of Munster, became the particular objects of renewed scholarly interest, but also of a revived debate over contested ownership, given that they had been in the hands of the Church of Ireland since the Reformation.

Graves’ work at Clonmacnoise, although originally mooted in the 1850s when he researched the site, was started in 1865 as a direct response to an act of vandalism at one of its chapels, Temple Finghin, in 1864 by a party of Catholic zealots from Birr. Legal proceedings were initiated against the perpetrators by the rector the Rev Charles Alexander Vignoles, with the support of the local Catholic curate, the Rev Patrick Young. From his prior investigation of historic documents and discussions with antiquaries, Graves envisaged that any conservation work he would carry out at Clonmacnoise would be well-informed, while his repairs to Temple Finghin (1867), and the nearby Nuns’ Church (1865), which was on private property, would also respect local sensibilities by being carried out in an exemplary way, including minimum intervention.

Keith Emerick has written of Graves’ conservation of the Nuns’ Church: ‘The importance of this work, and its place in the philosophy of repair, should not be underestimated’.[1] However, it would appear that Graves’ conservation philosophy was not sui generis, as his own writings implied, but particularly informed by his personal engagement with English antiquaries. From the early 1850s the KAS was exchanging its journals with allied British societies, including the Oxford Architectural Society, and Graves built up a network of correspondents. By his own account, he met many of them for the first time when, with the Irish antiquary Lord Dunraven, he attended a congress of the Cambrian Archaeological Society in Truro in August 1862. Freeman and Parker were certainly there, listed among the speakers, but as both had studied Irish antiquities it was probably more a case of renewing acquaintances, and Graves subsequently received an invitation to visit Freeman in Somerset. In May 1863, after Thomas Newenham Deane had been appointed architect for the restoration of St Canice’s, Graves, as treasurer, persuaded the dean and chapter that, rather than sign off or comment on the submitted proposals, which included the insertion of a hammer-beam roof over the nave, they should first be examined by Freeman and Parker.

It seems likely that by the time Graves began work on the restoration of the Nuns’ Church in Clonmacnoise in 1865 he had received the advice of the same two Englishmen. Parker, who in 1856 had acquired /The Gentleman’s Magazine’, which he also edited, wrote a piece on Clonmacnoise in 1864, illustrating (with a copy of an old engraving) the church’s by then collapsed/dismantled 12th-century Romanesque chancel arch, which Graves was planning to rebuild along with its collapsed doorway. Graves, by his published accounts, arranged for an archaeological excavation to be carried out to recover the missing stones. Any stones capable of reuse were sorted and reassembled on the ground prior to the construction of wooden centring. These were placed symmetrically from the springing points; where stones were missing ‘plain new voussoirs’ were carved and set in place in the centres of the arches. In this way, in the process of restoration by anastylosis, the new stones were clearly differentiated from the original decorated stones.

Finally, rubble masonry was placed above the arches to act as ballast, but was left with a rough outline rather than being reconstructed as a gable, the angle of the original gable not being known. A plaque was erected at the back of the doorway, which reads: ‘In May 1865 by the aid of subscription and under the Inspection of the Rev James Graves Hon Sec of the [KAS] the fallen choir arch and door of this church originally built AD 1167 were re-erected’.

Similarly, when it came to repairing the cap of the round tower of Temple Finghin, which had been damaged by lightning, the new work was to be distinguished from the old: ‘it was arranged that any new stones necessary to be supplied should be of a different kind – the old were calcareous sandstone, the new were to be limestone’. The works to both were superintended by the artist and antiquary George V du Noyer, who, with Graves, sketched many of the details. Graves wrote up the projects at Clonmacnoise in both his own journal and in Parker’s Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1865).


[1] Emerick, K (2003) ‘Whitby and Clonmacnoise’ in Heather A King (ed), Clonmacnoise Studies, Volume 2, Seminar Papers 1998, Stationery Office, Dublin.

This article originally appeared as ‘To restore or to repair?’ in IHBC's Context 163 (Page 21), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in March 2020. It was written by Frederick O’Dwyer, a Dublin-based architectural historian, conservation architect and town planner.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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