A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine
The Cutty Sark is to undergo yet more restoration work after being ravaged by fire. Parts of it will be too badly damaged to be saved, so at what point does it cease to be the original ship?
History up in smoke
I have spoken more than once, in the course of these broadcasts, of my fascination as an historian with the survival of things from the past, and the way touching and handling objects, or fragments of material, can help us recall with particular vividness and intensity otherwise inaccessible moments in history.
So listeners will not be surprised to hear that the news to which I woke on Monday morning - that the 19 Century tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, was ablaze from end to end at Greenwich - filled me with absolute dismay. Currently undergoing a £25m restoration, the Cutty Sark is the kind of magnet draw for the general public which convinces them (to use the slogan cleverly coined last year) that "history matters".
One of London's best-loved landmarks since she was towed to her specially constructed dry dock in 1954, she is also a memorial to the merchant seamen who lost their lives at sea during two world wars. Since the Cutty Sark opened as a tourist attraction in 1957, millions of people have queued to tour her, or have participated in one of the many educational events on board.
By Tuesday morning, when the TV cameras were allowed closer, it was clear that the damage was extensive. The ship's three wooden decks and planking had been destroyed, and the intensity of the heat had in some places buckled the metal frame. Dramatic shots through the blackened hull showed that the proud clipper had been reduced to a charred skeleton.
Still, it could, we were reassured, have been much worse. Because of the restoration in progress, half of the ship's timbers had been taken away for treatment. The three 100-foot masts, their sails and rigging, had been removed at the beginning of the project and sent to Chatham's Historic Dockyard for storage.
The prow, anchor and ship's wheel, and the complete contents of the below-decks galley and workshops, were also safe, as was the distinctive figurehead. This (many listeners will recall) features a busty "witch" in a short petticoat allegedly called in Scots dialect a cutty sark.
And although everyone involved in the project is devastated, according to a statement from the Cutty Sark Trust's chief executive, still, here too was a golden opportunity, the possibility of restoring her to an even more stunning standard than had been envisaged before the tragedy.
The anchor, safely in storage
I was almost persuaded that the fire had been a help rather than a hindrance to the restoration project. Part of our national heritage had come close to annihilation, but, fortunately (to quote the chief executive, surveying the damage on Tuesday morning), "we have enough of the original material here to make sure she will survive".
I find this an interesting thought. Whatever happens now - and surely the restoration efforts will be redoubled, and the desperately needed extra funding forthcoming - the resulting ship will now conclusively be a replica, simply not the original.
But then, wasn't she that already? The masts, everything on deck, many of the deck planks, and the fittings, were remade from scratch the last time the ship was rescued from destruction (by decay and neglect) in the 1950s. The masts, sails and rigging were once again restored, and pieces of the fabric replaced, as part of the celebrations for the Millennium.
Replica of a replica
Some cultures seem to mind less than others whether the historical object has remained the same over time. The first time I visited Japan, I was struck by the contrast between the way the Japanese view their historic buildings, and the way we do ours. In Japan, where wooden buildings have always been terribly vulnerable to the ravages of earthquake and fire, the idea that something is in effect a replica does not carry the same stigma of the inauthentic.
On our first morning in Osaka, we opened the curtains of our hotel room to discover that our attentive host had booked us a room with a "royal view" of Osaka Castle. The five-storey green and white pagoda-like building rose magnificently above the surrounding trees, its soaring copper roofs, outlined and ornamented with a filigree of gold, shimmering through the early morning haze, dominating the skyline.
Osaka Castle: Not an original stone remains
Osaka Castle was completed around 1590 by the great military ruler of Osaka, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and is today part of a proud heritage for the residents of Osaka and Japan.
Yet this beloved historical landmark is entirely a reproduction. Razed to the ground for the first time in 1615, ravaged by an explosion and fire in 1665, burned to the ground again when it was captured in 1868, heavily bombed in 1945, Osaka Castle was completely rebuilt as a concrete structure in 1932, and its exterior restored to its present splendour in the late 1990s. As our guide book boasted: "There remains no single piece of stone wall from the Toyotomi period."
Later in our trip we took a bus from Kyoto to Kiyomizu-dera (the Clear Water Temple), which like the Cutty Sark and Maritime Greenwich, is a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site. The origins of Kiyomizu-dera can be traced back to 798 AD, when a priest from nearby Nara was instructed by a vision to construct a Buddhist shrine there on an existing Shinto sacred site.
Today you climb two dauntingly long flights of steps (it was hot and humid the day we were there), and eventually arrive at the Main Hall, roofed in cypress, in front of which is a breathtakingly-cantilevered wooden platform, which projects out 30 feet, dizzyingly over 40 ft cliffs, giving an unforgettable view of the forested landscape below.
Descending another flight of steep steps to the secluded valley nestled beneath the main buildings, you find the clear water of the temple's name, dropping vertically as a waterfall, and queue to stand beneath it, drinking the supposedly-therapeutic waters from a cup on a long wooden pole, which you dip into the sacred pool.
Yet here again, the present buildings are nowhere near as old as the history of the shrine suggests. Some of them date from the 17th Century, others have been substantially restored in the 1980s. This last restoration included repainting the exterior of the soaring three-storey pagoda to its original bright reddish-orange. Once again, this causes the Japanese no hint of anxiety - our guide book informed us proudly that "the main temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its centuries of history".
In Europe, by contrast, we have a tendency to disparage or overlook the history of objects which have failed to last, or survive only as replicas, reproductions or recreations. Holbein's paintings, produced for the court of King Henry VIII in the early decades of the 16th Century, receive an enormous amount of attention from art historians and the public alike - as the numbers attending the Holbein in England exhibition at Tate Britain at the end of last year confirmed.
Squaring up to Henry VIII
King Henry himself, however, was far less interested in panel paintings than in his fabulous collection of 5,000 tapestries - more time-consuming and expensive to make, more valuable and highly coveted by other European royals, and much more impressive when hung. His tapestries, however, failed to survive the damp English climate - unlike Philip II's fabulous collection of 16th Century woven wall hangings, still in the Prado in Madrid. So tapestries are, on the whole, neglected in discussions of Tudor court culture.
New planks for old
Following Monday's fire, I may need to learn a more Japanese historical state of mind when it comes to the Cutty Sark. The shock of seeing that charred hull makes even a historical purist like myself welcome the prospect of resurrecting her as a glamorous replica.
Indeed, at what point in the replacement of almost every damaged element in the ship - including, perhaps, now, parts of the buckled frame - does it cease to be the original? It comes down to that old philosophical conundrum, known as "Is this my grandfather's axe?" My father replaced the blade of the axe, and I replace its handle. So is it still my grandfather's axe?
Restoration was already underway
The original Greek version of this philosophical problem of identity and persistence, known as "the ship of Theseus" is particularly apposite here. In his Life of Theseus, Plutarch tells us that the Athenians preserved and revered the ship in which Theseus returned from Crete, after he had rescued Ariadne from the Minotaur.
Over time, however, they assiduously replaced rotten planks with new timber, until every plank of the ship had eventually been replaced. So is this still Theseus's ship?
Below is a selection of your comments.
HMS Victory is only 1% original having had wood replaced over the years, but shes an authentic wooden warship. More famous than the Cutty too.
Christopher Lee Miller , Portsmouth
Apart from providing chuckles for philosophers, I don't think that this "original/replica" argument matters at all. As a working ship, many parts of the Cutty Sark will have been replaced, long before any notion of it being an item of historical interest would have arisen. If any visitors are concerned over whether what they're looking at is "original" or a restoration, the various parts of the ship can be labelled with the dates (when known) that they were made part of it.
Kay Dekker, Coventry, UK
I don't have a problem with replicas as long as they are clearly stated as such and are either an accurate copy of a known historical object or identified as being based on research, supposition or guesswork if that is the case. It is certainly not acceptable to pass off replicas as evidence of our past otherwise. In one way replicas are not as good as the "real" thing because they do not carry the full range of associations of an original object, but they do offer other important advantages. It is more likely that people will be able to touch or handle them and thus perhaps make a more meaningful engagement with the object and its story. Also, presenting only worn out, discarded, broken or incomplete objects gives a very misleading picture, of a past in which nothing was ever brand new. Replicas can help put this right and be really startling in their impact. The reconstruction of the Hilton of Cadboll stone is an excellent example of this. The weathered and incomplete original (one of the best examples of 9th century Pictish carving) stands in the Museum of Scotland. A brand new version, partly accurate copy and partly based on research and design, stands in the open near the site of the original in Easter Ross. Seeing the 12' high stone in the landscape, with all its details crisp and clear, illustrates the power and inventiveness of the Picts in a way that the real stone cannot. Objects change over time. They crumble and fall apart, they may be repaired or modified. Each time they gather a new strand of meaning. Which is the "real" Cutty Sark? The ship launched in 1869, the result of the 1922 restoration, or today's sad remains? What matters is that the whole story is captured and illustrated as accurately and vividly as possible using the material that remains from the whole of the ship's history, including today.
Estelle Quick, Black Isle, Scotland
... this broom is original - it's on its third head and second handle ... as long as it is clear what it is then reproduction is a good way of preserving the past - in some ways even better than renovation or preservation - we can see things as we best believe they were, not in some rotted down state. How this happened though, that is another thing. If an "accident" then who did not take care? If deliberate, then if they can be caught, they shoud be punished, repraration extracted and re-education imposed.
Robert Hawtin, Ipswich
It stopped being the Cutty Sark when it stopped being actively used as a ship. 'Restoration' works done in that time would have simply been repairs; it's the use that keeps the spirit of the thing. Now it's just a floating museum and no amount of restoration will make any difference to that.
Natalie, Martins Heron, UK
Perhaps Trigger may have some insight into your conundrum? His trusty sweeping brush went through many changes but still remained "his" only brush :-)
Is it not the preservation of the exact experience which is the goal of any historic location, and therefore a well executed replica will deliver precisely that? There is very little of the SS Great Britain which is original, yet the careful restoration provides a vivid insight into how life must have been like on board at the time it was new - perhaps this is even better at bringing the history to life than an original which would today be redolent of decay? For the finest example of how a full restoration can be just as valid as the original, one need look no further than the National Trust property of Uppark; burnt to the ground in the early 90's it has been rebuilt and restored to the most exacting detail. I was privileged to be able to view the property after its restoration before it was open to the public, and although the smell of fresh paint seemed faintly absurd at the time, the completed work was entirely appropriate and did not lessen the experience.
Simon Holt, Bristol, England
Is this still my body even though no cells remain from the day I was born?
Nick, London, UK
Surely "history" includes the reason why a particular object is an object of the affection/veneration of the observer? Would this history not then be a preservation of that representation (rather than the object itself)? If so, surely whether the object itself is the original or a replica would not be important because the ideas represented are being preserved? One needs only observe behaviour around religious relics (of body parts) to see that the veneration being displayed is that of the original idea, not of the near-completely decomposed body part.
I think we all hope that the 'new' Cutty Sark will not have a kitsch Disney feel about it. This is a danger with all 'repro' art & architecture. Japan is a great place but it has more than its fair share of kitsch!
Dorian Burt, London UK
As long as some of the original remains its heart and soul will be a part of the ship and a testement to the era of naval timber ship building
F.M. Luder, Washington
I suppose an answer to the philosophical question of whether this is 'still Theseus's ship' or 'still the Cutty Sark' is in whether one believes in the 'spirit of our ancestors'. By rebuilding an object with as much loving care and as much attention to detail as possible, as the Athenians did, then the spirit of the thing is handed down through generations. Yes, my grandfather's axe is still my grandfather's axe, even though head and shaft have been replaced - replaced through love of the thing, of wanting it to continue. I dislike replicas built from scratch, but the fire was a terrible accident (or otherwise). We should save what can be saved and replace the rest, because we love the thing.
Kim Forster, Solihull
In his splendid book, "The Fifth Elephant", Terry Pratchett OBE gives his definition, using the "grandfather´s axe" conundrum as his example. Towards the end of the book he has the dwarf Low King of Uberwald give Commander Sam Vimes a ceremonial dwarf axe. In giving it, the King says, "No doubt over the years it will need a new handle or a new blade, and over the centuries the shape will change in line with fashion, but it will always be, in every detail and respect, the axe I give you today." That seems to me to sum it up perfectly.
Toby Woolrych, Malaga, Spain
This is what makes the British so great. Our heritage is not only in books. We need to be able to 'see and touch' things for ourselves.and if we have to restore something so people can do this so be it, We will be better for it. A beliver that only good can come of this
Alan Cawley, Manchester
In her working lifetime, the Cutty Sark would have had timbers, masts and fittings replaced as they became worn-out or damaged. Castles were redesigned and expanded upon to accommodate changes in the style of warfare; stately homes were redecorated and reshaped to the whims of fashion - all before they became mere tourist attractions. It's often difficult to tell what the 'original' actually is. What's important is that the Cutty Sark is more than the sum of its parts. It has stayed intact through all this time and will be repaired, rather than being completely destroyed and replaced - and that is the crucial difference.
D Waite, Oxford