Thursday, October 25, 2007

John Harris descends into Hades to launch architectural salvage book

Above: John Harris book-signing at Lassco 24 October 2007

Vauxhall, London UK - BRUNSWICK House was host to the triumphal launch of John Harris' latest book Moving Rooms - The Trade in Architectural Salvages at which luminaries of the conservation world could be seen although dealers were thin on the ground, apart of course from Lassco staff whose London base this is. Among the more notable in attendance were Gavin Stamp, Mark Girouard, Eileen Harris, Charles Brooking, a coterie from English Heritage headed by no less than Simon Thurley, representatives from London museums and more.

The book is a tour de force, running the gamut from the 1600's to the recent past, spattered with references, notes and anecdotes, open-ended titbits and lush in-depth researched history.

"The book tells a story that no-one else could even dream of putting together," said Sally Salvesen who was the book's editor.

"Salvages are like artworks," John Harris said, in response to our question asking what he thought of the modern UK architectural salvage trade. "Their value goes up and down. Fifty years ago a stately home was demolished every two days, salvage was omnipresent, house sales were happening everywhere, thousands of fine chimneypieces being taken out every year. I think it would be wonderful for the trade if buildings being demolished now were treated in the same way with provenanced demolition sales." The value of items removed in the 1950's had reached rock bottom so the only way was up, and now many of those rescued items are appreciated and worth fabulous sums of money. He mentioned 63,000 Georgian marble chimneypieces – but then duty called and he was signing again.

During the evening Adrian Amos gave a short introductory speech where he described John Harris' visit to Lassco as descending into Hades and meeting Beelzebub. John Harris riposted that his writing was about the rogues of the trade in every century before recounting the tale of his discovery of Lord Bolingbroke's 'Cedar Room', a panelled room in London where Pope wrote Essay on Man, which is now in a private house in Philadelphia.

John Harris writes:
As I had started professional life in an antique shop in 1954, I stood on the other side of the fence to the historians. Apart from precious few of the latter, no one bothered to protest the sheer volume of the salvage trade, or to document it. And if, in 1955, one country house was being demolished every two-and-a-half days, what could have been done? I often speculated that if 1,500 country houses have been demolished, where on earth did 1,500 staircases, 10,000 chimney pieces or 2,000 rooms go? The salvage trade was built on this. In general, the trade was neither particularly interested in its archives nor, indeed, in provenance. I first thought about writing a book on architectural salvages in 1960, when I toured museums in the US and wondered about the whys and wherefores of their many English period rooms. My second attempt followed the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974, when it dawned on me that the loss of country houses in the 20 years following 1919 and the first world war coincided with the fashion for installing English historical rooms in American museums — direct cause and effect. [Building Design 24 Aug 07]

Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages

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