Historic Gravestone Splits in Two During Restoration Work….Why?

Anguish for descendant of Victorian artist as stone splits in two during restoration work

Art lecturer Ian Wilson with the broken gravestone

Art lecturer Ian Wilson with the broken gravestone

Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown. Right: Great-great-grand­son O

Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown. Right: Great-great-grand­son Oliver Soskice

Published: 29 March, 2013

THE great-great-grand­son of Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown has voiced concern that the gravestone of his famous ancestor has been badly damaged during restoration work.

Oliver Soskice, 64, a professional artist, paid £750 to have the stone – which was leaning perilously – placed flat on the ground at Islington and St Pancras Cemetery, in East Finchley.

However, during lifting work last month the ornate stone broke into two pieces and that is how it has been left.

Mr Soskice said: “It’s not that I tipped Hamlet’s gravedigger £10 to do the job. The work cost a lot of money.

“I wanted them to clear the site, which they have done, and lay the stone flat on the ground so there was no danger it might topple over and injure someone. But I had no idea there was a danger it might break.”

Mr Soskice, who lives in Cambridge, is the son of Frank Soskice, the late Labour MP and former Home Secretary.

The “forgotten and neglected” Madox Brown burial spot was discovered by chance by Holloway art lecturer Ian Wilson while visiting his mother’s grave nearby in March last year.

As a result of Mr Soskice’s concerns, featured in the Tribune last year, Islington Council launched a Ford Madox Brown grave improvement appeal.

Mr Wilson, art co-ordinator at the Hoffman Foundation for Autism in Wood Green, hopes the appeal will pay for repairs to the stone and the eventual full restoration of the grave. He said: “At the moment the grave looks like a building yard. This is disrespectful to anyone let alone an important British artist and early socialist.”

He has asked the council’s environment chief, Councillor Paul Smith, to instigate work cementing the two broken parts of the stone together.

“Cllr Smith was reported last year in the Tribune as saying he was keen on launching an appeal,” he said. “How far has he got?”

Cllr Smith said this week he was sorry the stone had broken and hoped it could be repaired.

“I hope to meet the family as soon as possible and get the appeal going,” he added. “This important piece of art history needs to be supported.”

Speweik Comment: This story was first posted by Jonathan Appell on LinkedIn Group “Gravestone & Monument Preservation.” April 7, 2013.  It was refreshing (but sad) to see a published story in a newspaper about a historic stone repair gone wrong. Maybe it was because it was a gravestone, and maybe it was because it was a famous persons gravestone, or maybe because it was so old – at this point it doesn’t matter – I’m just glad it was published for all to read. We can learn from the mistakes of others when we have the opportunity to know about them. A true expert (if such a person exists) is one that has a strong character trait to admit a mistake and allow others to learn from his experience. This of course is not usually our natural response.

Coming from the trades as a stonemason, I have come to learn and respect stone by working with it for many years in many applications. From quarry, to block, to slab, to dimension unit, to seasoning of the stone, then protecting and preparation, and finally to the installation into the wall. I have also had the reverse experience in my later years in historic preservation work of carefully deconstructing, removing from the wall, redressing, restoring, rehabilitating, and conserving stone for reuse – placed back into the same location or position.

Possible Solution: This is a example of a historic stone conservation repair approach. No materials are placed on the front of the stone - repair is made from the back without pins.

Possible Solution: This is a example of a historic stone conservation repair approach. No materials are placed on the front of the stone – repair is made from the back without pins.

I have found that historic preservation work requires a higher-level of sensitivity to the task with the baseline understanding that you are handling history and not just a piece of stone.

I have come to appreciate that the preservation approach must be well thought out and planned by first identifying the stone. Then determine the cause of the problem and possible pattern(s) to similar surrounding stone. Then examine the historic stone for potential areas of weakness prior to establishing the proposed solution to the problem – and certainly before moving it. It is from this process and examination (Condition Assessment) is HOW I develop the respect for the stone, what it has been through in connection to its problematic condition and then to finalize my proposed options for solutions.

This approach helps to keep surprises to a minimum, not to say they still do not occur, but hopefully not to the degree we read in this story.

I see some key contractor/owner errors or “red flags” in this story that may have made the initial problem more complicated. Can you identify some of these flags? Both on the contractor side and the owner side? I would love to hear your experiences with similar projects. Remember sharing any mistakes is a good thing here 🙂  Who will be my first expert to comment??

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  1. #1 by housesandbooks on April 11, 2013 - 4:37 pm

    Did I assume rightly that Soskice’s instructions to lay the stone flat on the ground resulted in the leaning stone being wrenched apart rather than carefully supported and lifted back up to perpendicular? Good blog.

  2. #2 by dustin1234 on August 19, 2013 - 2:47 pm

    The stone should have never been laid flat on the ground because the stone was designed to sit vertically and when it was laid horizontal it broke.

  3. #3 by Lonnie Hovey on January 22, 2014 - 8:41 am

    John: Great outline of a preservation approach when dealing with any historic object. The red flags would certainly seem to have been the stone’s initial leaning (what caused the soil settlement or foundation failure? Or did the stone placed below ground deteriorate and cause the unstable settlement? The other red flag would be the decision to lay the stone flat on the ground. Such a stone was not meant to be in that position as there is no mention of what grade preparations were made to let the stone lay flat on the soil, not to mention that laying the stone flat would cause the carved surfaces to be exposed to different wear patterns. I am not familiar enough with gravestone preservation to know if an acceptable preservation treatment is to lay stones flat on the ground. If so, I would have expected to hear that the organic soil had been removed and replaced with a leveled area of sand covered by pea-gravel to promote drainage from around the headstone, but that does not appear to be the case. If stones are laid flat, it would suggest that they need to be fully supported across their surface, and not laid on a rough, organic dirty terrain.

    • #4 by John Speweik on January 22, 2014 - 10:17 am

      Lonny: It was great hearing from you. All the red flags you identified and everything you mentioned is logical and correct. I love to engage other professionals in the process of thought and ideas – because together we all can make a good team. And what better way – than to ask questions and really think about… “If I were that historic stone….”What would I say to my caretaker?” This means that as part of that professional team – we should always include the historic stone in the conversation. I have been writing, teaching, and privileged to train masons for years on how to listen to a historic stone, or better yet, what is the historic stone saying to me? I would encourage you to think about the ways a historic grave marker (in this case) would / could possibly talk. Seems a bit weird I know, but hey – I have seem some pretty weird looking masons in my day. Again, many thanks for the message. And Lonnie – Keep striving to be the best you can be in 2014.

  4. #5 by John Heider on February 25, 2014 - 3:06 am

    John: I had to chuckle when you encouraged people to “listen to the stone”. You are absolutely correct because they will “tell you” what the problem is and then it is up to the conservator to apply the correct answer. My personal rule is to “Look before you leap”. A more obvious question is how was it originally set that made it last over 100 years?
    From the articles description, the stone was leaning and in one piece. What is not visible is its length below grade and removing the soil on the opposite side of the lean would provide that answer. In the photo, the length of stone below the inscription implies that it was likely set directly into and supported by Mother Earth. If my assumption is correct, bring the stone to vertical and firmly tamp dirt in any voids around the stone. Problem corrected for another 100 years.
    However in this case, the stone was removed and that action set the stage for disaster. Improper handling creates problems and rarely does a stone break if kept in a vertical plane and properly supported. Remember to “listen to the stone”.

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