The Treatment of Historic Carpets

Functional objects for daily use or fine art to be preserved and admired?

John Maclean

IMAGINE: a historic house, open to the public, with an assortment of carpets on the floor. There will be a mix of hand-woven and machine-made; the eastern and the western; the recently purchased and those with an intrinsic value which is integral to the character of the property. Some carpets will be physically protected while others will be in areas of heavy public use; some will be deemed 'art' and others may be considered 'tat'. Far reaching decisions based on sound conservation principles have to be made concerning the preservation of them all: each requires its own preservation equation.

Nearly all carpets start out as utilitarian objects, no matter how beautiful or well made. Their primary function is therefore that of floor covering, while their secondary function is decorative. The consequent presumption that most carpets are to be freely, if carefully, used to the point of their ultimate destruction has a significant effect upon how they are cared for. Their maintenance tends to be remedial rather than preventative and focuses on 'keeping things going', rather than specifically addressing their preservation needs as artefacts of historic, aesthetic or cultural interest. Similarly, there are no clear-cut criteria for distinguishing those carpets that have aesthetic or artefactual value from those that are purely functional. indeed, carpets that start out as functional objects can often assume artefactual value: their value thus changing through time.

In historic houses there is an increasing number of carpets whose primary value is now as artefacts rather than as functional objects. If these are to survive for posterity, we must firmly grasp the nettle and give clear priority to their conservation. Likewise, where carpets are clearly of utilitarian value alone, we should be able to defend their use and accept a more flexible approach to their repair and maintenance. Bearing in mind that continual use will ultimately lead to a carpet's destruction, deciding their fate can be an onerous responsibility. The issues are rarely black and white: every decision is a compromise between competing requirements, and are often limited by the resources available.

To be able to make informed judgements about the treatment of individual carpets, we need to know the right questions to ask, and to ask them consistently. The following criteria provide a starting point in this process. It is not perhaps the specific decisions that are reached regarding a particular carpet, but rather the programme of thought and the quality of judgement that are of paramount importance. When we can look at any given carpet in our care, and articulate and defend our preservation policy towards that carpet, then we will be a little further along the right track.

ASSESSMENT CRITERIA

Intrinsic Historic/Cultural Interest: Provenance, Manufacture and Date

A carpet may be important as either an exemplary or rare example of a particular workshop, style, construction or period. It may also be important as a key element of a wider scheme of decoration affecting the interior of the whole of the room; without it the character and historic value of the interior may be diminished.

Associated Historic/Cultural Interest. Events, People and Place

Associations may be of local or national importance, but equally a carpet may acquire value for purely personal or family reasons.

Aesthetic Interest and Quality

In addition to its immediate value as a work of art, a carpet also has a strong influence upon the ambience of its setting. This is the elusive 'feels right' factor. Whilst it may be possible to replicate the design of the original carpet, some aspect of its original character will be lost: it may be the air of faded and elegant antiquity, for example, which is so crucial to the character of many interiors. No matter how good the replica, replacements and 'restoration' work has an unhappy tendency to 'feel wrong', and inevitably the character of the room will somehow be diminished by the loss of the original.

Condition: Structure and Design, Stability

The condition of the material and the repair required also has a bearing on the treatment of an artefact. A carpet might have a strong structure (warp, weft and knots) but its pile may be so worn that the pattern is unreadable. In other cases the design may 'read' perfectly but the structure may be so weakened that conservation is almost impossible, Conditions may also vary within the carpet: obvious areas of damage can be relatively stable, while the rest of the carpet is quietly degrading through too much light, pests, damp or wear.

Resources Available: Financial and Technical

Conservation is labour intensive and expensive. It is therefore vital that each carpet receives treatment appropriate to its function, siting and value. Preservation treatments must be specific to the requirement if the money available is re, be well spent. There are numerous sources of technical and specialist knowledge to help you make the best decisions, many of them listed in this publication. However, where the conservation of historic fabric is concerned, the reputation and experience of those involved should always be thoroughly assessed to ensure that they have the resources for the work proposed.

 

TREATMENT OPTIONS

Only when all the issues are fully understood, including the importance of the object and its role in the interior, the cause of the problem, and the resources available, can one consider what action should be taken.

Do Nothing

In some cases it will be concluded that the limited importance of the original or the extent of the repair work required may not justify conservation or restoration: in other cases the resources may simply be inadequate for the scale of the problem. Having taken all the criteria into consideration a policy of non-intervention may be the only logical and realistic option, even though the consequence may be the ultimate destruction of the carpet. The decision to do nothing must be deliberate rather than the product of casual neglect or ignorance.

Preventative Conservation

Where the causes of the deterioration can be identified and eliminated effectively, preventative conservation represents the cheapest, most practical and ethically appropriate solution. It requires a coherent overview of the situation and a systematic approach that can he realistically implemented. However it should be recognised that a conservation strategy is only as good as the will and the resources to implement it.

Remedial Repair

In most cases some remedial repair will be necessary to prevent further damage and to maintain the integrity of the structure or its design. However the approach treats the effects of a problem, nor its cause, and there is a tendency to slide into crisis- management, where repairs are continually required just 'to keep things going'. Remedial repairs are only appropriate as part of a wider conservation strategy which also incorporate preventative conservation measures.

 

This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1996

Author

JOHN MACLEAN is a carpet conservator based in Edinburgh.

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