by Duncan Marks
On Saturday 2 October, in early-autumn sunshine, the latest cohort of York University Conservation Studies postgraduates, their Director of Studies, Dr Gill Chitty, and a healthy turnout from the York Conservation Alumni Association, all embarked on a field trip to Brodsworth Hall, near Doncaster. The trip, which was kindly arranged and paid for by the YCAA, brought to a close a busy introductory week for the MA students, and was most certainly welcomed for it.
It would be harder to find a more befitting place to visit in order to showcase conservation principles and decision-making in-action than at Brodsworth Hall, an opulent family home built in the Italianate style during the 1860s by the fabulously wealthy Charles Thellusson. Today, Brodsworth Hall prides itself on being ‘preserved exactly as the last resident, Sylvia Grant-Dalton, left it in 1988’. It openly tells a tale of the gentle decline of a spacious family home built for grandeur but increasingly reliant on a make-do-and-mend mentality as the twentieth century progressed, before English Heritage agreed to take on the property and gardens in 1990.
On arrival, we were made very welcome by the curator Caroline Carr-Whitworth and assistant curator Elly Matthews, who by outlining the history of Brodsworth Hall, and contextualising its decline in the wider fate of similar houses of that age, set the day off in the right frame. As we moved around the house, Caroline and Elly’s explanations of the decisions that they had taken on the nature of conserving objects in each of the particular rooms was excellent. This way we could appreciate just how much TLC had gone into the fixture and fittings, a devotion to detail and conscientious care that might otherwise have been lost on our as-yet-cultivated conservational eyes. It was interesting to see a conserved house rather than the more typical restored one, allowing us to see conservation work as a living project and not merely an end result, which is often the seductive feeling when visiting National Trust or English Heritage properties.
The likely impact at Brodsworth Hall from the recent shift in English Heritage’s financial and organisational status, from being State-sponsored to a self-financing charity, provided opportunity for much discussion between alumni and students alike. It certainly reinforced for the latter that we are preparing to enter a sector whose ambitions and methodology are currently being redefined; simultaneously a daunting and exciting prospect. Will Brodsworth Hall succumb to the temptation to ‘restore’ the hall to the look of its early days of Victorian grandeur, such as they have chosen to do at Brodsworth with the hall’s lavish gardens? Or will they hold firm with the principle of preservation? In which case, how will it impact on their ability to pay-their-own-way in the cold commercial climate that English Heritage properties are now exposed to? While there are as yet no answers, the trip to Brodsworth Hall was, however, a great case study to rouse the new intake of Conservation Studies postgraduates to begin asking the right kinds of conservation questions.