As the chief executive of English Heritage in an age of austerity, Simon Thurley wants to tell the English to rejoice in their history and philanthropists to start supporting it
As the chief executive of English Heritage in an age of austerity, Simon Thurley wants to tell the English to rejoice in their history — and philanthropists to start supporting it
UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY, any heritage-lover showing up for a guided tour of Clifton House on Queen Anne’s Street in King’s Lynn may not have recognised the figure of Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, in his chinos and tan suede loafers, as he welcomed guests through the imposing entrance with its twisted Solomonic columns and their lead hopper heads bearing the date 1708.
Coincidentally, the plates bear the monogrammed initials ST, after the 18th century wine merchant who owned the house.
But over the last year or so — partly as a result of publishing two major books in four months, regular appearances on TV and the Today programme and being the circus master of the centenary celebrations for the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act — Thurley has become increasingly well known.
This profile was upgraded further when it was announced in July that Thurley had won an £80 million grant from the government to restructure English Heritage with a new self-funding arm that will eventually be supported solely through ‘heritage philanthropy’ and commercial income.
Pictured above: Audley End House in Saffron Walden, Essex
Since English Heritage will not get any government support in future for repairs and enhancements, as part of austerity, Thurley’s solution is a bold and expedient — if also potentially challenging — way of surviving a devastating cut. Thurley’s vision, born out of this austerity, is that English Heritage (‘an outdoor museum of living history’) will no longer depend on philistine politicians.
The new funding arrangements for English Heritage mean that philanthropists will now have the opportunity to invest directly in saving and preserving the National Heritage Collection, those buildings and sites from Hadrian’s Wall to Kenilworth Castle that are in the care of English Heritage and tell the story of England.
He rails against the idea that our heritage buildings and sites are any less valuable to the nation than Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, ‘saved’ for the nation after £35 million was found.
As Thurley noted in an earlier book, this and similar paintings were not really saved at all: ‘Nobody was going to burn them or hack them to bits,’ he wrote. ‘The worst that could have happened is that they could have been exported to another country to be enjoyed by people in a museum in a different country.’
As head of English Heritage, he wants our buildings and architecture to enjoy the same level of cultural status. Which is why he is so excited to explain how £27 million funding was quickly and unexpectedly raised to allow Stonehenge to once again nestle in its ancient and natural setting rather than be surrounded by the noise and eyesores of stop-start lorries and traffic trundling by on the A344.
So long sweeties
The Stonehenge case shows how this new philanthropic funding model will work. Sitting on a faded (‘beyond repair’) olive-green velvet Knole sofa in the drawing room of Clifton House, sipping tea from some exquisite Chinese-looking tea-cups, Thurley explained that one of his scariest moments at English Heritage came shortly after the Coalition government was formed and he was informed that the Treasury was immediately reneging on the Labour government’s promise of taxpayer ‘sweeties’ to fund this ambitious project.
Thurley had been elated before the last election as English Heritage had been given £10 million pounds by Gordon Brown. The next thing he knew was that ‘the sweeties were being thrown out’ because it was all borrowed money.
‘They were going to announce that the Stonehenge project was cancelled; that was what George Osborne wanted to do as well,’ recalls Thurley. ‘I was literally on the phone to the Treasury as Danny Alexander was heading into the chamber of the Commons to stop him from saying that the project would be cancelled. I got him to say that “No public money would be used”.’
Pictured left: Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall
Which was all fine — but if he wanted the project to proceed, he had to find the money from somewhere and prove that English Heritage could indeed fund its projects. The only good news was that Thurley did have £5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a further million from a private donor. Only £21 million to go.
‘So, we had to go out and raise every single penny of it from somewhere else, and the Stonehenge project that is breaking ground later this year will be built without any government money, and I think that was quite a lesson for the government.’
How did he pull it off? ‘There were a small number of very wealthy individuals who had private trust foundations who gave us money, and the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to double their grant. We had to undertake one or two commercial activities. We sold some land actually, sold some property. And we’ve managed to get it all to stack up.’
Pulling off such a fundraising feat — at a time when the real enemy of heritage conservation is not souvenir- or architectural-salvage-hunting Americans (as in the pre-war era) but rather Treasury Spending Reviews in the name of ‘austerity’ — is the sort of challenge that Thurley relishes.
And a challenge it will be. This £80 million kick-start is modest to the point of embarrassment, considering the £26.4 billion the heritage industry contributes to the national economy, but it and its new charity status will give English Heritage more opportunities to look for philanthropic investment in the National Heritage Collection of 420 historic sites, monuments and collections.
The new charity will be set up by March 2015 with the existing English Heritage Commission appointing trustees and launching new initiatives for fundraising activities.
English Heritage’s role as the guardian of England’s heritage at large will be performed by a department with the working title of the National Heritage Protection Service. This will be the government agency that will use its statutory powers to protect ‘the very stuff of our historic streets, villages, towns, cities, our ancient archaeological remains and even the heritage beneath our coastal waters’.
‘The National Heritage Protection Service will continue to work for the survival of England’s historic environment as a constant source of beauty, intellectual and emotional stimulation and pleasure, a reminder of ancestral struggle and achievement,’ adds Thurley.
‘Our heritage is what makes England uniquely appealing to tourists and businesses and our job will be to make sure it continues to contribute to economic growth, to sustainability, and that it gives a sense of place and meaning as the backdrop to all our lives.’
Up with the Clarks
Thurley’s self-appointed and very public ‘mission’ to serve the public by combining acute scholarship on complex subjects with popular accessibility and relevance for the broad modern public is a critical part of his brand, modelled after two other well-known cultural historians: Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, to whom the title of his new book, The Building of England (out in October), nods, and Kenneth Clark.
With his cobalt eyes, dandy-don turn-ups, polished brogues and prolific intellectual and broadcasting energy, Thurley reminds one of the younger Clark — in the days when the pre-war art establishment’s golden boy was still addressed as Mr Clark and did not have the grand initials OM, CH, KCB, FBA sprawled after his name.
Clark was made a knight in 1938 at the precocious age of 35 while serving as the youngest-ever director of the National Gallery. After Clark brought his 1969 Civilisation series to the BBC, he was ennobled as a life peer.
Thurley already has CBE, FRIBA, FRHistS after his name and although not in the Lords (yet) he has closely followed Clark’s example in career precocity, being appointed curator of Historic Royal Palaces in 1989 when he was just 27, going on to become director of the Museum of London and then head of English Heritage when he was 40.
Listening to his almost Jamesian sentences, it is easy to understand why he has never been accused of dumbing down or losing any academic rigour in his heritage television programmes (he has made six so far) or his insanely busy lecturing and ‘talk’ schedule (speaking dates can be seen on his website: simonthurley.com).
One of the demands on all cultural bodies these days is to ‘prove’ their economic value, yet Thurley can tot up as many numbers as he needs and they won’t do him any good, he says. ‘I don’t believe that any figures have helped heritage or culture one single tiny jot. One of the very first things I did for this job was I started this thing called Heritage Counts, which is a compendium of heritage data.
‘It makes no real difference for the very simple reason is that our figures will always be trumped by figures in areas that are politically more sensitive. So, we might say, “Saving an old church is going to cost x amount of money,” and someone else might say, “Well, curing a cancer patient will cost this much,” and you’re defeated immediately. Therefore, you can’t argue on economic grounds.’
Pictured above: Hadrian’s Wall
He pauses and looks towards the unpainted ceiling of his drawing room where a large chunk of plaster from the former site of a chandelier is missing. ‘You have to argue it on the soul and on the heart, that’s what you have to argue it on. What is the soul of England? And the questions are not, I’m afraid, black and white.’
One of the things that encourages Thurley is how there has been a sea-change in national perception of the value of heritage — even at the top — between the launch of the Millennium Dome and the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, which celebrated the very best of England’s heritage and the story of England through individuals, events and internationally recognised landmarks and buildings.
‘I think there has been a huge change of late and (with the exception of a few) the vast majority of private owners are more responsible guardians and custodians of heritage than at any time before. Why? Well, the experiences of the post-war years have made people think differently about heritage, and secondly, and this is the fundamental thing: heritage is worth money now. An old building that is beautiful, and is highly listed, is not a burden unless you are someone who is incredibly misguided.’
Perhaps only an architectural historian with such a passion for his job could use the phrase ‘soul of England’ without sounding sententious. His last book, Men from the Ministry, explained how much opposition there was — from both landowners and politicians — to the idea of even protecting our heritage. What was especially interesting was that English property owners didn’t like the idea of the state telling them what they could or couldn’t do with their land or buildings.
I asked to what extent the recent wars over the National Planning Policy Framework, which threatened to let development run riot over the countryside, were peculiarly English, like the pre-war arguments over ‘Octopus’ development and the birth of motorways.
Do we have a peculiar relationship to ‘place’ — is our national identity really an extension of landscape and place? Do you refer to the National Heritage Collection as the world’s greatest outdoor museum of history because we have this unique sense of attachment to our architecture and landscape? And do our heritage and our buildings ultimately teach us who we are?
‘Our buildings are what make us unique, which is why they are worth saving and protecting. The past tells us about the future. My new book, which is essentially a history of building in England from the Romans up to the Second World War, takes this as its theme, that there is a very particular relationship that [the English] have with their land, with their landscape, their green hills.
It’s all part of an island mentality, and it is individualistic and it is to a degree iconoclastic, and it is fiercely protective and rooted in land, ownership of land. There’s no coincidence that people in this country want to own their houses, no coincidence that people in this country want a garden, no matter if it’s the size of this room. It’s no coincidence that we live in houses, the Scots live in flats, the Parisians live in flats.’
What Thurley has also inherited from Lord Clark is an almost shameless triumphalism regarding human and individual achievement. Clark referred to himself as a ‘hero worshipper’ and Thurley brings much of this same enthusiasm for the way he admires certain architecture — almost as if the buildings have taken on a spiritual life of their own and have become more than the sum of the architects, masons, carpenters and builders — and the architectural historians who have made them what they are today.
Thurley’s love of heritage — and its power to inspire and educate — is infectious and goes back to his days being brought up in Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire, where as a young boy, aged seven, he helped dig up the remains of a Roman basilica under an apple tree in his garden. In a recent edition of the Members’ Magazine — sent to the nearly one million members of English Heritage (up from 460,000 when Thurley took over in 2002) — there is a photo of Thurley in shorts standing on the basilica ruins.
Thurley has been described as a ‘cerebral aesthete’. His restored home in King’s Lynn — with a spectacular Elizabethan tower — is open to the public. Its interiors — including a series of rooms designed by the architect Henry Bell and others dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries — were recently profiled in Country Life.
And from the unpainted segments of exposed walls to huge cellars whose columns stand at irregular heights because of ‘insensitive’ earlier (non-EH approved) restoration, the house is a tribute to the quirky, beautiful and unfinished. The eclectic range of rooms is an entirely fitting personal HQ for a man whose architectural interests and passions range from the Neolithic to Norman Shaw.
As Thurley says, ‘I don’t think we could be happy if everything was perfectly restored and there was never any work to do. I feel more comfortable around the slightly tatty. When things are a bit run down and there is a sense of a challenge ahead.’
With Thurley in charge of a significant part of the nation’s heritage, the many challenges ahead to ensure that our heritage remains both a force for economic growth and the envy of the world are at least in the best possible curatorial hands.