Tuesday, 23 August 2016

You only get one chance

H.I.'s Cartier watch just arrived, today is in-house training day for the young mason and the sun is shining. What could possibly go wrong?

The young mason needs no training in masonry - rather he could teach me quite a lot. What I am imparting is the application of fairy-dust, and I am not sure how impartable that is.

This year is the 300th aniversary of the birth of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, and he and his team celebrated it by almost demolishing an L.C.B. architectural feature on the historic estate. I won't go into details other than that it was a complete and unforeseeable accident involving a high-powered machine, and bore no resemblance to a Norman Wisdom film whatsoever. Thankfully I was not there when it happened, and neither was the owner.

People often ask me what I would do if I accidentally destroyed one of the rare and extremely valuable items that I handle almost on a daily basis, and I say that I cannot afford such an accident, so I would never be put in that situation. Of course, we have all come close at various times and - as with conditions which bring us close to death - are very often not even aware of it. Thankfully.

When I have handled priceless medieval carvings - such as the 13th century Madonna and Child which I had to physically remove from its original position once - I have not allowed myself to think in terms of disaster. It is a bit like not looking down when climbing great heights.

These rare disasters are caused by poor planning, and poor planning can be the result of failing to admit that other people's advice - if freely given - can be invaluable, even if it is only based on intuition and not experience.

I watched a documentary on the restoration of a massive and important, prehistoric, ceramic bowl once, and this was the most excrutiating thing I have seen which didn't involve the loss of life, because the disasterous outcome was obvious almost right from the beginning of the half hour film.

The bowl had been excavated in hundreds of pieces, and had been pains-takingly put back together again by a team of conservators at the museum over a very long period of time. The documentary-makers had taken clips of the project in various stages, and the project itself was managed by a middle-aged, female archeologist who was keen on making it hers and hers alone, without anyone else sticking their noses in. This was going to be her moment of fame, and it certainly was.

The intact bowl was about six feet across and very heavy, and the woman fussed about as they prepared to lift it off the work table and put it on a trolley for transportation to somewhere else in the building.

She barked orders at the lifters and generally created an atmosphere of panic, which is the very last thing she should have done.

They had a large gantry over the bowl which had the hoist and straps attached, and she gave the orders for the straps to be wrapped underneath and around the rim of it at the top. I waited for her to place rigid spacers between the straps to avoid them crushing the bowl under its own weight, but she had none.

I watched between my fingers as the bowl was inched into the air - with her fussing around and still barking orders - and just as all of its considerable weight was lifted a fraction from the table and the table was slid out from beneath, the bowl spectacularly imploded into more than the original components and clattered to the ground.

She screamed an expletive and asked for the cameras to be turned off.

I have not seen her since.


  1. I once dated a fellow with more brains than common sense. He was an engineer who worked on outer space projects. Once at an art fair he bought a very expensive porcelain bowl. Beautiful. He put it on the back seat of his car. Later that day he put the seat back down to accommodate another purchase, and pushed hard when it did not yield. The bag with the bowl was smashed flat. A year later he announced he had finished gluing it back together. Did I mention more time than brains, too.

  2. Reminds me of 'Del Boy' Trotter and the huge Chandelier.

    1. Classic, you should find it. It was all I could of think of when I read the post but Cro beat me to it.

    2. The only one I ever saw (haven't watched much TV for 35 years) was when Del Boy bought a garage-full of flared jeans - in the 1980s. If he had hung onto them until the 2000s he would have cleaned-up.

    3. Strange as it may seem to you I have not watched a lot either apart from football. That episode was in 1982 before I met P which is probably why I was watching it

  3. I thought this kind of thing only ever happened in comedy films.

  4. I loved that story about the barking lady. Everyone living with a child with disorder knows that is the most stupid thing to do when you want things to last.
    Every person dealing with artefacts should take a course in such a family. Ours perhaps? I could tell you another story from a guide in Skara dome, one of our oldest dioces. They hold treasures from the middleages, f.i a golden crown, used by one of the early kings. Fifteen years ago they where to have an exhibition and had ordered safetycupboards. Only, they didn't arrive in time but the crown did, so this poor guide took it home in a brown paperbag from the local groceriestore and kept it under her bed, not sleeping a wink all night. We should be deeply grateful for such heroism!!!

    1. That church in Italy where the old woman destroyed an early portrait of Jesus is now a tourist destination.

      Here in Britain two days ago, a team of conservators chiselled off a Banksie mural which they were sent to protect because it was a valuable and listed asset to the town.

      I can only think that they were replacing the cement render with a lime mortar as they are trained to do.

    2. There you see, nothing is really sacred!! Banksie has had his share of "protecting" in Sweden as well. In my oldest church, as in all the others during reformation days, mural paintings were covered very thoroughly and only semirestored when we came to our senses. Last month, a beautiful wall decoration made of tile, called "the wirl" was under severe discussion, since the walls owner forgot to apply for buildingpermit....horrid, isn't it??
      I had forgotten about that old lady....

    3. Victorian England finished off the job of the Reformation when they actually REMOVED the medieval wall paintings from most churches. At least in Sweden they only painted over them.

  5. Ouch!! Is that true????? I thought the british where civilized people....