Monday, 2 May 2016

In Praise of Bad Repairs

Ancient buildings. To repair or restore? Tricky. I'd like to suggest an alternative - go back to the original way of doing things, which is to say, do it really badly.


They don't build houses like they used to. Well no, they're not allowed to, because they used to be crap. And most of them have fallen down. So only the good stuff from the past is left, which gives us a false impression of cosy solidity.

Houses for common people used to be really rubbish. Flick through the ever-fascinating London Labour and the London Poor or just look at the early photographs of lower-class people's homes. They could be comfortable, but they don't ever seem to have been neatly built.

Yep, crap.
Consider, for a start, re-plastering an ancient property. Doing it 'correctly' means, say, getting a skilled master plasterer to do the walls using original materials, the best tools and the finest traditional lime plaster. You'll be amazed by the beautiful, smooth finish, the neat corners and that ingenious little fillet over the door. Just like it was done in 1850. Except that's not how it was done in 1850, because most houses were originally plastered by the incompetent and the ham-fisted, using the wrong tools and poor-quality materials. The modern expert will do it 'right', which will be wrong.

That was never straight, was it?


Here, by happy fortune, I have a double advantage. First, by curious circumstance, we've come to own a little house untouched since about 1900. Second, I have the remarkable skill of being able to very accurately imitate centuries old craft incompetence. In fact, I can say with some pride, that the new window frames in our house are, after my attempts at puttying, pointing and painting, now absolutely indistinguishable from the 1700s version.

The ceiling had been repaired with bits of old packing cases. A lead miner lived there. Look what he used.

So the 'Back House' at Winster is going to be have its rotten woodwork replaced (just as non-straight as the original) get re-plastered (a bit wobbly) and painted (original colours - green and cream - and original-style blodges and streaks). It is going to have the gloomy gaslights and the sloppy slopstone and leaky windows all repaired. I think you can still buy Reckitts Blue to make your own bedroom distemper. I might just draw the line at retaining the authentic damp, but I have persuaded the carpenter that, no, we don't want draughtproofing in the window frames. No, not even hidden draughtproofing. No! Not even if it looks just like the original.

When it's finished, you can come round and have a cup of tea. You'll have to light the range first, you'll find the coal in the shed, next to the privvy.

No, Richard Grafton Interiors Ltd, this is not a restored Victorian kitchen. No. Not.