Living in a Material World

Living in a Material World

While it rightly condemns ISIS’ brutal destruction of the Middle East’s rich architectural heritage, is the West neglecting its own, more subtle cultural vandalism? Suzannah Lipscomb poses the question in her History Today column of May 2015.

In 1538, when Henry VIII built Nonsuch Palace, near Cuddington in Surrey, it was to be, as its name suggests, a house without equal. The lavish Renaissance palace was covered with painted and trompe l’œil stucco panels, framed by plaques of carved and gilded slate. Few paintings of Nonsuch survive, but it has been recreated as an amazing model in recent years (built by Ben Taggart, and costing twice what the original palace cost to build, it can be seen in the service wing of the Mansion House in Nonsuch Park) and it is clear that this most remarkable of Tudor buildings was a dazzlingly ornamented folly on a grand scale.

It now lives up to its name. There is no such palace because, in the 17th century, after poor treatment at the hands of the parliamentarians, it was in a bad state of repair and Charles II gave it to his mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. Without ever living at the palace or even visiting it, she sold it off as building materials and the palace was demolished piecemeal between 1682 and 1687. The palace became a forgotten legend until Martin Biddle and John Dent, in the summer of 1959, excavated it in Nonsuch Park and rediscovered its lost glory.

Although the first Ancient Monuments Act was passed in 1913 (creating the institution that would later become English Heritage), the tearing down of historic treasures is not itself only an historical phenomenon. A more recent casualty is another Tudor building, King’s Place (later known as Brooke House) in Clapton, Hackney, which was once owned by Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and later Fulke Greville, the great friend and biographer of the Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sidney. It was demolished in the 1950s by the local authority to make way for a secondary school (attended, among others, by Alan Sugar) and, indeed, even more recently, Nonsuch suffered a second attempted assault: plans to convert Nonsuch Park into a golf course – obliterating the footprint of the palace and preventing public access to the site – were successfully opposed by a newly formed group, the Friends of Nonsuch, in the early 1990s.

These stories are not rare. On one encounters a sobering list of, currently, 1,933 lost English country houses. Many stately homes were deliberately demolished in the 1950s by impoverished landowners to avoid paying the stratospheric death duties. Others have been too expensive to maintain. Nevertheless, the story of Nonsuch’s destruction, the plans to eliminate its footprint and the demolition of Brooke House all tell the same tale: preferring modernity, progress and financial benefit over the nebulous virtue of historical preservation.

It is for very different reasons that the Islamic State (ISIS) has bulldozed the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud in Iraq, which dated from the 13th century BC and was first excavated in the 1840s. Yet the outcome is the same. We have been doing similar things until very recently ourselves. Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, is on record as stating about Nimrud that ‘the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime’. This should give us serious pause for thought. How many of our acts of deliberate destruction closer to home should be considered criminal? And is this actually fair? We recoil at the wanton horror of the razing of Nimrud – the calculated obliteration of a former civilisation in an attempt to eradicate the history of different forms of belief (polytheism, other faiths and even forms of Islam that do not conform to Sunni interpretations); is it perhaps the underlying ideology that makes this vandalism feel so awful? What if a site or house were destroyed for lack of wealth to maintain it or because it was too derelict to repair, or to replace it with something modern and comfortable for the owners, or to build a hospital, housing estate or school? History surely can not always trump modernity.

And yet I suspect there is something more in us that cries out against the ruination and loss of heritage. It is not just an aesthetic crime. These material remains of the past carry, in some ghostly and ethereal way, the story of human lives: the creativity, hopes, fears and loves of those who embodied the spaces. We cry against the destruction because it feels something of a wilful destruction of the human spirit.