The Treatment of Historic Carpets
Functional objects for daily use or fine art to be preserved
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.
Intrinsic Historic/Cultural Interest: Provenance, Manufacture
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.
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
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.
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.
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
JOHN MACLEAN is a carpet conservator based in Edinburgh.
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