Fireworks over Fireplaces

Sunday Times Article, 1st March 2009

English Heritage is open to charges of ignorance, dishonesty, ecological damage, and putting British jobs at risk. Why doesn’t the culture minister, Barbara Follett, do something about it?  Richard Girling reports

The knuckle of my right forefinger, tentatively applied to Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s boardroom fireplace, raises a hollow echo.

As befits a room of such grandeur, the chimneypiece is a thing to be marvelled at, a confectioner’s extravaganza of swags and garlands beneath a decorated ceiling of fabulous opulence. It is the most important ground-floor room in the best property in the best Georgian square in London. When it was threatened with encroachment from the British Museum in the 1930s, Country Life protested that it was “a masterpiece of English architecture”. The architect of New Delhi, Sir Edwin Lutyens, described it as “a most interesting house of exceptional quality”.

It still is, and it remains immaculate.
And yet, just a few days before my visit, I heard an official from English Heritage (EH), the government’s statutory adviser on historic buildings, deny all knowledge of it. Shortly afterwards, his press office sends me a selection of photographs showing what it claims are original fireplaces from houses in the square. Strangely, Sir Cameron’s masterpiece is not among them.

Behind EH’s confusion lies an odd and troubling story. It begins, in a seemingly minor way, with an angry Scottish fireplace manufacturer. It ends with revelations that raise questions about the competence of those responsible for the protection of the historic environment. As a result, EH stands accused of unfair trading, institutional bias, professional ignorance, environmental damage, arrogance and dishonesty.

In January 2008 a developer called Topshore was converting a house in Bedford Square, No 52, from office use back into a single dwelling. Keen to use classic Georgian fittings, it selected four chimneypieces from the catalogue of Thistle & Rose, a Hawick-based company specialising in facsimiles of the Adam-style fireplaces typical of Georgian England. The chimneypieces are of painted pine, with “sculpted” detail in a special composite material devised in the 18th century by Robert Adam himself. You will find such fireplaces, original or reproduction, wherever in the world English Georgian style is admired. In an article about Thistle & Rose in May 2007, Country Life described this kind of chimneypiece as “an icon of neo-Classical taste”.

The project architect at 52 Bedford Square was Alan Franklin, of Franklin Design Associates. After research on the history and architecture of the square, he says: “We thought they [the Thistle & Rose fireplaces] were fine. The supplier was extremely committed to authenticity.” After a site inspection with officials from EH and Camden council, it seemed the planning authority and its statutory adviser thought so too. “Our understanding was that it would be an acceptable solution.” But three months later came a letter from Camden rejecting the fireplaces. With the backing of EH, and at vast extra cost to the applicant, the planners wanted marble.

Camden’s urban design and conservation officer, Charlie Rose, did not mince his words.
In a letter to the founder of Thistle & Rose, David Black, he wrote: “Following research on original fireplaces in Bedford Square by Camden and EH…, the Thistle & Rose fireplaces were not considered to satisfactorily preserve the special architectural and historic interest of the Grade I-listed building.” This was a recurring theme. In an e-mail obtained by Black through a Freedom of Information application, EH’s historic buildings and areas adviser for that part of London, Richard Parish, instructs another
EH official: “Whilst timber fireplaces may have been used in certain rooms in Bedford Square (second floor, basements, etc) those in the principal rooms are demonstrably (on the evidence available) stone, I can find only one photograph which would be a wood or plaster fireplace which is in No 50. However, given that 52 has demonstrably stone at ground floor it would appear very unlikely to then have used wood at 1st floor level.”

This is strange indeed. I personally have no difficulty finding many more photographs of Adam-style wooden fireplaces in Bedford Square, and no difficulty in finding original examples in situ. Moreover, the “demonstrably” stone examples in No 52 are clearly not original. Odder still is my own interview with Parish’s team leader, Michael Dunn, who tells me he does not know of any principal room in Bedford Square that contains a timber fireplace. Asked if such a fireplace would ever be appropriate to such a room, he replies: “Absolutely not.”

To justify this opinion he cites the definitive book, Andrew Byrne’s Bedford Square: An Architectural Study, which is an exhaustive room-by-room gazetteer of every house. Exhaustive, that is, with a single exception. Because of the high risk of theft during restoration, Byrne’s inventory specifically excludes fireplaces. One example alone is identified and singled out — the very same that now answers to my knuckles in the principal ground-floor room of No 1.

Invisible though it may be to EH, this house — perfectly preserved and now used by Sir Cameron Mackintosh as his company office — is regarded by architectural historians as the finest in the square. Andrew Byrne describes it as “the ace in the pack”.

And the fireplace? Timber and moulding, classic Adam. Ten minutes later I am fingering another one, on the first floor of No 40. A little after that, I am thwarted by jobsworths at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine — No 50-51, next door to 52 — who won’t let me see the one example whose existence EH admits. But this, too, I discover, is in an important first-floor room, not the “second floor, basements, etc” that EH claims.
Never mind. I’ve been in the square for only half an hour and already I have seen more than English Heritage. I also have a photograph of another imposing timber-and-composition fireplace from the first floor of another high-status house, No 47, and I have every reason to believe there are many more. Conclusion?

When the houses in Bedford Square were built between 1775 and 1783, some were fitted with marble chimneypieces and some with wood. In terms of authenticity, neither is more “correct” than the other.

I check other important Georgian buildings in London and find the same. The Royal Society of Arts, for example, is based in John Adam Street, in a run of Georgian classics designed by James and Robert Adam themselves. Most of the chimneypieces, including those in the drawing room and fellows’ meeting room, are of wood.

I check also with the architectural historian Steven Parissien, director of education for the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, whose tombstone-sized book Adam Style has the weight (4lb 2oz) and authority of a Bible. He admits a personal preference for marble, but says he has “no problem” with painted wood. “The key word is honesty. It’s important that anything put in is of a high standard of craftsmanship. I don’t think there’s any justification for insisting on marble. I might prefer it, but I wouldn’t insist.”

How, then, should we determine what is historically correct? “One could use next door or any house in Bedford Square as a template,” he says. Next door to No 52, of course, is No 50-51, where by EH’s own admission at least one chimneypiece is wooden; and two doors away in the other direction stands the “ace in the pack”, No 1. To make absolutely belt-and-braces certain, I call the authority on whom EH rests its case, Andrew Byrne, who confirms what his book implies, viz: “There are good-quality original wooden chimneypieces in the square in the principal rooms, ie, ground and first floors.”

So much for EH’s “research”. But why does any of this matter? Arguments between EH and the owners of historic buildings are not exactly uncommon, and many of them come down to matters of opinion. But that is precisely the point. If EH cannot rouse itself to proper research at an address as important as Bedford Square, then what standards did it apply to the 15,000 other planning applications it dealt with last year? Its obduracy in the square cost the applicant a great deal of money (the bill for just two of the fireplaces came to £50,000 plus Vat). In a house that would be marketed at £15m (later reduced to £12.5m), this might not seem a lot. But money needlessly blown on fireplaces (or any other architectural detail where EH subjectively imposes its expensive tastes) is no longer available for work elsewhere in a building. “There’s always a risk,” says Steven Parissien, “of cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

What, then, can we conclude? That English Heritage knows better than Robert Adam how to fit out a Georgian house? That it is in the grip of an irrational prejudice? That is has acted in ignorance? Or that it knows very well what it is doing and is driven by some other motive?

By unfortunate coincidence, at the very time that it was working to impose a marble monoculture in Bedford Square, EH was going into business with a commercial manufacturer to sell — and I admit this takes some believing — an “English Heritage” range of marble fireplaces. It insists that this involves no conflict of interest, does not compromise its integrity as a statutory authority, and is both ethical and legal. All the same, it seems to realise it doesn’t smell too good, which is why it fires a red-letter e-mail across my bows. “Any suggestion that the case at Bedford Square shows that our advice is tainted by the desire for financial gain is absolutely wrong. English Heritage has never used, and will never use, its advisory role for financial gain or to promote its home decorating products.”
Well, we shall see.

Already we encounter a peculiar mindset. Who else in the world would categorise £20,000 carved marble fireplaces with paint and wallpaper as “home decorating products”? While there is no suggestion that English Heritage profited from its involvement in Bedford Square, the smell lingers. How can it be right for an official body having the power of veto over building materials to go into the architectural supply business? And yet it responds indignantly to any suggestion that it has placed itself in a position to benefit from its statutory duties.

“We do not give advice on where to buy or source fireplaces or similar items,” it says.
Well, judge for yourself. Search for “fireplaces” on the English Heritage website and this is what you will find: “English Heritage is delighted to have selected Acquisitions of London as its chosen fireplace partner. The English Heritage Fireplace Collection exhibits all that is enduring about our heritage, whilst being as kind as possible to the environment. Materials are mainly sourced from the Mediterranean region as they were in Georgian & Victorian times, saving energy and emissions compared to Far East production.

“Working with English Heritage historians, and taking inspiration from many of our properties, Acquisitions has produced a carefully balanced collection of fireplaces that reflects the wealth of England’s heritage… These are iconic reminders of our heritage, all of them timeless classics. Their mantels and inserts authentically revive the styles and fashions of past eras and are designed to last the lifetime of any home.

“Everyone involved in the creation of an Acquisitions fireplace is an expert or has a passion for perfection. Using traditional skills and techniques together with authentic materials and tools, their craftsmen produce beautiful mantels whose every detail will stand up for the strictest scrutiny.”

It then explains that EH will receive a commission from each sale and provides a link to the Acquisitions website.

Most ordinary English-speakers, I suspect, would struggle to understand how this is other than “advice on where to buy or source fireplaces”. Insofar as I can understand it, EH’s justification is that its hyperbolic hard sell of Acquisitions’ products cannot be taken as specific advice to any particular applicant, and thus does not infringe its “advisory role”. And there’s more. When asked what safeguards are in place to ensure fair competition with other manufacturers, it replies: “Procurement law is there to protect competition amongst suppliers to the public sector. There is no supply in this instance, so procurement and related competition principles are not relevant.”

I put this to the Office of Fair Trading. Are deals of this kind really exempt from European and UK competition law? No. “[They] are covered by the Competition Act 1998 and Article 82 of the EC Treaty”. Some of Acquisitions’ competitors don’t much like the look of it, either.

“Oh, my God!” says Liz Elcombe, managing director of Gatwood & Elcombe, when I show her the advertisement. “I am amazed they would allow that to be on their website. I think it’s outrageous. I really object. There are so many untruths in that.”
One falsehood, admitted by EH, is its claim that the branded fireplaces are a new range developed by Acquisitions “working with English Heritage historians, and taking inspiration from many of our properties”. This remains merely an aspiration. What’s actually being offered is a selection from Acquisitions’ existing range, with new branding. Despite owning up to this, EH has made no correction to its website. Its Hovis-and-brass-band references to “England’s heritage”, “traditional skills”, “craftsmen” and so forth might also be taken to imply that the fireplaces are made in this country. “They absolutely couldn’t be,” says Elcombe. “It would be impossible for anyone to produce them here at the prices they are offering.”

This, too, is conceded. Manufactured fireplaces are exported from their countries of origin — Italy, Egypt, Greece, China — leaving only the finishing to be done in London. Given EH’s expressed concern to be “as kind as possible to the environment”, I ask if this traffic has been subject to a carbon audit. Answer: no. So we have a government agency, supposedly committed to national policy on carbon emissions, which is recommending fireplaces imported from China while simultaneously rejecting historically accurate alternatives made in Scotland by British craftsmen from sustainable local materials. It also undercuts firms like Gatwood & Elcombe that do manufacture in the UK, and bizarrely claims that shipping part-finished fireplaces is significantly more eco-friendly than importing the fully finished ones sold by the UK market leader, Chesney’s (whose own pitch for the franchise was turned down on the specific ground that its products were made in China). Which brings us back to the issue of fair trading.

There is no abuse of power, EH tells me, because “the department responsible for our commercial activities is entirely separate from our planning department”. Well, indeed. Different departments, different responsibilities. But it’s still English Heritage. For an informed legal opinion I call the Law Society, which refers me to Susan Singleton, a specialist in competition law. The separate-departments defence, she says, is “a load of rubbish”.

“In the minds of buyers of fireplaces, the fact that EH has endorsed a product is bound to encourage them to buy it. This is not the role of a regulatory body. It would be similar to the NHS allowing one manufacturer to place the NHS trademark on its painkilling drugs, or the Ministry of Justice allowing the letters “MoJ” to appear on a security system.
“I don’t like the concept. They mustn’t abuse a dominant position,” says Singleton. “If you’ve got concentrated power you can’t force a restrictive agreement. Clearly they have dominant market power. They can’t prefer their in-house supplier against an outside supplier.”

She also rejects EH’s contention that it is exempt from competition law. “In theory, the law should apply in exactly the same way as it does to any other trading entity.”
Paul Chesney, managing director of Chesney’s, has no doubt that Acquisitions’ commercial rivals have been seriously disadvantaged. “ We worry that this may impact adversely on the sales of our period fireplaces to listed properties where statutory permissions are required from local planners or English Heritage themselves, as owners may be influenced by the exclusive and far-reaching nature of the endorsement that English Heritage gives to the Acquisitions range.”

Thistle & Rose’s David Black can hardly contain his fury. “It beggars belief,” he says, “that a state authority has set itself up to trade anti-competitively in a specialist area of manufacturing as a direct rival of existing craft-based businesses. Not only does this distort the marketplace, it also falsifies the historic record by maintaining that the use of timber and composition chimneypieces in late-18th-century houses is inappropriate — a blatant fallacy.
“Even worse, by sanctioning the use of products manufactured in the Far East over those made by home-based craft industries, English Heritage is threatening British jobs, as well as the future prospects of students and apprentices in the UK. The fact that they are doing this for profit can only be described as the whoring of the heritage.”

Having consulted lawyers, Black has formally complained to the European competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, and engaged the support of his MP, Mark Lazarowicz, who has written on his behalf to the culture secretary, Andy Burnham. Consternation and regret? Fat chance.

The reply comes from the parliamentary undersecretary, Barbara Follett, who professes herself “sorry to hear that Mr Black feels the information provided to him by English Heritage was misleading. This is why I asked my officials to look into the matter”.
How they looked into it is a subject for conjecture. I can find no evidence of their having consulted anyone outside EH — they certainly did not speak to David Black (or “Mr Bashford”, as Follett carelessly garbles his name). And yet the minister is able confidently to conclude that EH “acted entirely properly” in advising that the missing chimneypieces at 52 Bedford Square “should be replaced with historically accurate ones”.
Well, whoever said they shouldn’t?

To appreciate the accuracy and beauty of timber-and-composition fireplaces in a Georgian house, Follett could do little better than revisit her own former home in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. After she and her husband, Ken, moved out, it was “re-classicised” for its new owner by Peter Inskip & Peter Jenkins Architects. Their chosen fireplaces throughout the house? Timber-and-composition from Thistle & Rose.