A faked body, a lost soul

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CAN YOU restore a soul as well as a body? That was the crux of the debate that opened, nearly five years ago, immediately afer the devastating fire at Uppark, the National Trust's 17th-century house in Sussex.

Within a month of the disaster, the trust had decided uncompromisingly that it would restore the body of Uppark in the hope that a soul might emerge along the way. Although only one room, the Saloon, remained in anything like its original condition, they voted to rebuild the house, the roofless shell of which remained, and remake the interior exactly as it had been the day before the fire.

Faced with similar disasters in the past, owners of great houses generally took a different line, commissioning the best architects of the day to build new and even better houses than the ones they had lost. This was not an option open to the trust. Its insurers, Sun Alliance, would pay for a replica Uppark but not for anything else. With pounds 20m (the estimated cost of restoration) at stake, there was a compelling reason to remake the place, down to the last teardrop of the chandelier that crashed from the Little Parlour into the basement with a chimney, a ceiling and a floor on top of it.

After five years' work, the rebuilding is substantially complete. But what have we now got at Uppark? An old building or a new one? The local authority regarded Uppark Mark II as a new building which had to conform to local building regulations. The trust disagreed. The interior, when it is open to the public next year, will pose similar quandaries. Where does the original merge with the copy?

Plasterers, joiners, metalworkers, gilders and stoneworkers have laboured with staggering expertise to remake Uppark. The decorative plaster ceilings of the five main ground-floor rooms, including that of the famous Double Cube Saloon, are all 'accurate copies' of the ceilings before the fire. About half the original paper in the Red Drawing Room was rescued and this has been put back, indistinguishable from the newly-made half.

Taking authenticity to the nth degree, the new wallpaper was mostly printed to match the faded colour of the old, but the patches matching the places where pictures had hung for centuries were printed darker than the rest, although when the pictures are rehung, nobody will be able to see them.

Some 5,000 fragments of woodwork, sifted from the debris, are incorporated into the new doors, cornices and fillets. 'It is now impossible to see the joins between old and new,' says the trust proudly. After a major disaster, we all wish we could, as it were, rewind life like a film, and pretend it has never happened.

With its pounds 20m, the trust has been able to do that, but I would have liked to be able to look at those fragments of wood, knowing they were part of old Uppark, the house in which for 250 years, until the night of 30 August 1989, nothing moved, nothing changed. I would also have liked to see what the superb craftsmen of the restoration team could have created by way of a new, rather than a copied setting for Uppark's saved treasures.

From the beginning, the words conservation and restoration have been used interchangeably to describe what has been going on at Uppark. There is though an important difference between the two things. You restore a body; you conserve a soul. 'Conserve as found' has generally been understood as the most honest approach, an approach which does not attempt to disguise the past history of the house or the chair or the painting in question, merely to stabilise it at a certain moment in its history. If you attempt to pass off as Chippendale a chair that has only one 18th-century rung in it, it is called a fake.

The fact that anything from door locks to chandeliers can be remade to look as good as old is a tribute to the craftsmanship of the Uppark team. But should new be, as the trust describes it, 'seamlessly matched' in this way to old with no more than a few token gestures, a patch of paint on the back of a shutter, a small fillet of unpainted wood, to remind us that all is not what it seems?

In the remnants of old Uppark, the fragments painfully retrieved after the fire, is the soul of the house, conserved. These are subsumed now in the body of the house, restored. This devalues the worth of the original. In the fudged middle ground between the two, we look at Uppark, seeing all things, original or remade, with the same dispassionate eye. 'Wonderful what they can do these days' we will tell ourselves, when the house opens next year.

Within 12 months of the event, the trust had already published The Fire at Uppark by Adam Nicolson. Can a film be far behind? 'This publication,' said the director-general of the trust, Angus Stirling, in his preface to the account 'can be regarded as the first chapter of a much longer book.' In a recent press release the trust announced 'a major interactive exhibition' - to be sponsored by their insurers Sun Alliance - to tell the story of the fire and the restoration at Uppark. Farewell to the disaster of the night of 30 August. Welcome to the fire as a brilliant new marketing opportunity.

Beatrix Campbell is away.