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The Tijou Screens - their present condition, conservation and restoration
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By Andrew Naylor of Hall Conservation

 

The Tijou Screens - their present condition, conservation and restoration options:

Jean Tijou was a French Huguenot designer of decorative wrought iron and repoussé. He came to England to work for Christopher Wren and Tijou’s lifelong patrons, William III and Mary in or about 1688. He is not known at all for his work in France, although Wren went to Paris specifically to invite him to work at St. Paul’s. He was trained in France (it’s thought at Versailles) and must have reached prominence to have come to the attention of William and Mary, nevertheless, his work is known only in England, with notable examples at; Hampton Court, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kensington Palace, Chatsworth, Burghley and Marleborough.

The Tijou Screens at Hampton Court Palace were commissioned initially for the Fountain Gardens on the East Front, but were then soon moved to the Privy Garden and installed around the turn of the 17/18c. It soon became apparent that there were inherent problems of rusting and decay. The design is exuberant, extravagant and intentionally showy. Going for visual impact over practicality Tijou took a cavalier attitude towards the future. Maybe he thought the fashion for baroque would last, patronage and the flow of money would continue and that would take care of looking after it, but the design incorporates many water traps which paints could not then and modern paints still will not permanently seal, leaving it vulnerable to corrosion.
 
From time to time repairs and restorations were carried out, but not on a consistent, structured basis. By the mid 19c their condition was so poor that there were strong arguments for a ‘last ditch’ conservation effort. On that issue, two forceful camps were agreed, but they were diametrically opposed as to the means, one campaigning for preservation in situ, the other for conservation in a museum environment. The museum camp won, not only through the conservation argument, but because the individual Screens were to be spread around different museums throughout the manufacturing centres of England. In the museums they could be used as teaching aids and reference resources for cutting edge designers, makers and manufactories.

The Screens at Hampton Court (picture by Andy Marshall)

All things change and despite objections from the museums, by the late 19c it was felt that they could only be best appreciated as an ensemble in the landscape of the Privy Garden. In February 1902 a full proposal statement was presented to Viscount Esher, First Commissioner:
 
"The proposal is to replace these screens (12 in number) about the spots where they formerly stood, between the Home Park and the Palace Garden, before they were lent to the Science and Art Department in 1861 for the purpose of being restored and exhibited. The First Commissioner then reserved the right to bring them back after a year."
 
Although very much in favour of re-siting, J. Starkie Gardner (1844 - 1930, the pioneering decorative ironwork historian and ‘Metalworker to King Edward VII’) and others were emphatic that reinstallation should be conditional upon there being regular inspection at intervals of months rather than years, basic maintenance and repair. A postcard of 1904 shows the newly replaced Screens resplendent at the end of the Privy Garden, but a trawl through subsequent correspondence reveals the continuation of the old story within six years, rust, neglect, decay and bits falling off.
 
“Had Tijou's original embossed work been preserved it would have been among the finest extant of wrought iron” was Starkie Gardner’s comment in 1896. Following reinstatement there began an honourable, if misguided tradition of reports, all of them thorough and detailed, but no matter how well intentioned, none have resulted in successful, sustained, practical conservation.
 
Tijou makes clear in the frontispiece to his book of designs, both in the text and in the allegorical references in the illustration (which includes elements that can be identified on the Screens) that they are for the use those who ‘worke Iron in Perfection and with Art’. In other words, artist craftworkers. Many subsequent repairs and reproductions have been carried out by technically competent blacksmiths, but without the necessary degree of training, scholarship or sculptural talent to make accurate, convincing reproductions. Later blacksmiths have also often had to work to instruction from others who apparently had little or no practical experience of working the metal. A newspaper article from ‘The Evening News’, 1950 describes the process;
 
“First, a staff official (Office of Works) of great experience made a highly detailed and technical study of Tijou’s works.
 
Then a metal like the original was chosen, and a selected metalworker was told to turn out leaf ornaments from the drawing, subject to constant correction from the expert.”
 
The whole article, which begins; ‘A modern English craftsman in a shed...’, typifies an unhealthy, unhelpful, patronising attitude that still persists, it implies that the ‘bloke-in-the-shed’ is not quite up to the mark and needs an ‘expert’ to tell him what to do. In fact William Roberts, the unnamed metalworker of the article, was highly skilled in repoussé and accurate copying, having learnt his trade as a chaser in silversmithing.
 
The net result of the shambolic approach to date is that the screens as we see them today are a sort of tangible ‘Chinese whispers’. Each ‘pass-it-on’ has moved further and further away from Tijou’s original masterpiece of vibrant, virtuoso baroque, so what has been handed down to us now is static, two dimensional and crumbling.
 
Acutely aware of the history of false starts and misguided treatments, Historic Royal Palaces, the custodians, Martin Ashley Architects, and ourselves, Hall Conservation Ltd, conservators are working together to define a programme of conservation, restoration and a sustained schedule of maintenance.
 
The logistical implications of the conservation and restoration of the screens now are considerable, but the problems increase exponentially as time passes and decay takes its toll. The nature of the material dictates that decay and loss is progressive, rust evolves slowly and as it develops it substantially weakens the material, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to inherent stresses and accidental or deliberate damage. Many of the existing repairs are misguided, unsightly, poor quality and are adding to the problem. There is also an issue now of a dwindling skills base and wrought iron of similar quality to that used by Tijou’s smiths is no longer available, so alternatives need to be found and tested. These are problems that will only become a more severe obstacle with the passing of time and given the current state of fragility, decay, the logistics involved and the ethical considerations attached to the preservation of the screens, there is a degree of urgency. Tijou completed the works (while working on other projects at the same time) in about seven years, but he had generous funding, a plentiful supply of materials, ranks of experienced smiths, apprentices and labourers at his disposal - today that level of support is not available.
 
The most urgent concern now is the stabilisation of the screens. In 2009, Hall Conservation Ltd carried out a preliminary condition survey submitted a conservation report and completed holding repairs to the main fixings on the screens, some of which had failed and others were on points of failure. Loose elements and some that had become detached were re-fixed, but repairs had to be prioritised and were limited by time and budgetary constraints. During the course of the work we noted many indications of advanced, progressive decay in the attached decorative elements which will become structural problems in the not very distant future. There are many inadequately re-attached elements, now further weakened and at risk of becoming detached. In Spring 2011, further and more comprehensive holding repairs will be undertaken which will also provide an opportunity for us to research, record and analyse the screens in detail. Research must be carried out on the techniques Tijou’s smiths used, the materials, his original design and the changes that have been imposed over the course of time. This is essential as a means of informing conservation and restoration policy.
 
There is only at most, a tiny proportion of the original remaining, either on the Screens or elsewhere and it is worth repeating J. Starkie Gardner’s comment; 
 
'Had Tijou's original embossed work been preserved it would have been among the finest extant of wrought iron’.
 
Since 1896, yet more has been removed and replaced in the manner of George Gilbert Scott’s ‘improvements’ to mediaeval churches, so the screens as they appear to us now are not a reliable source for research into Tijou’s original design, style, workmanship or techniques, as they consist of a mishmash of inaccurate reinterpretations and lesser to downright poor quality craftsmanship. A better starting point than the actual Screens is his ‘A New Book of Drawings Invented and Designed by Jean Tijou’, published in 1693.
 
'A new book of drawings invented and desined by John Tijou. Containing severall fortes of iron works as. Gates, Frontilpeices, Balconies, Staircales, Pannells &c. of which the most part hath been wrought at the Royall Building of Hampton Court, and severall persons of qualityes houses of this Kingdome all for the use of them that will worke Iron in Perfection and with Art. Sold by the Author in London 1693.’

The Screens at Hampton Court

From our investigations for the purposes of preparing our 2009 survey and report, we believe that the designs illustrated in the book are not so fanciful and exaggerated as some scholars have suggested and they do correspond closely to surviving examples of his works. Other sources of useful information are; the detailed investigations accumulated over many years by Susanne Groom (HRP Historian); salvaged components at Hampton Court Palace and the V&A; castings taken in brass, bronze and iron from now lost originals; other examples of Tijou’s work in better condition at Hampton Court Palace, St. Paul’s and elsewhere.
 
During our preliminary research we quickly became proficient in distinguishing what we believe to be Tijou’s craftsmen from that of others by the quality of detailing and modelling in addition to the general superiority of the craftsmanship. We have also begun to recognise differences between what we think are the hands of his many assistants interpreting his designs in their own distinct styles.
 
Since their reinstatement just over 100 years ago there has been a lack of consistent maintenance of the screens, which has contributed to their current sorry condition. The last major restoration during the 1990’s has repeated the cycle of previous ambitious restoration projects that have not been followed up by maintenance, so, yet again the screens have significantly deteriorated. This clearly demonstrates that unless a regular, consistent programme of maintenance is initiated, any future programmes of refurbishment will be a waste of money and resources, more will be lost and the condition of the screens will again reach crisis point. Practical maintenance is the key to the future conservation of the screens.
 
Poor restoration in the past has left us with the screens as we now see them. That legacy of ill-considered, low quality restoration casts a bad light over restoration as an option now, but restoration backed by sound research and first rate craft skills can give us a better grasp of the original’s importance than if it were to be conserved as it is, radically altered by extensive poor restoration. Due to the extent of loss and poor restoration, we consider the screens to be now in an extremely corrupted state, conservation now would merely preserve a debased artifact that has lost all its former significance through bad restoration. In these circumstances, we believe that restoration is the most appropriate policy, but it would have to be demonstrably high quality restoration guided by conservation ethics. The standards we will demand will be high in order to achieve success, much higher than has been considered the best that was available or necessary to date. Restoration will be backed up by rigorous academic research to ensure accuracy, diligent recording of all evidence of earlier work, alterations and the work carried out during stabilisation, conservation, restoration and maintenance.
 
It is an ambitious scheme and in an attempt to address the problem of the skills gap, we have been instrumental in the formation of the National Heritage Ironwork Group and setting up a training scheme for conservator blacksmiths - blacksmiths who will develop their ironworking skills but also undergo training in conservation techniques and approaches.
 
To avoid falling into the trap of the ‘Chinese whispers effect’, there is a great deal more comparative study to be done before we can be confident that we are thoroughly familiar with the original style, modelling and forms of the screens. It will then be necessary to rediscover the makers techniques, even to the extent of determining the shapes and proportions of the tools the smiths used, reconstruct them and hone our modern technical skills to suit. For the project to be successful, the practitioners involved in the project must be prepared to become totally immersed in Tijou, to attain technical excellence, scholarship, to adhere to conservation ethics and develop an ability to handle sculptural form in this least ductile of modelled materials.

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