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Fantasy, lovingly rebuilt

The Uppark restoration is testimony to our yearning for historical comfort, says Jonathan Glancey
Uppark, the William and Mary Sussex mansion ravaged by fire six years ago, reopened yesterday to a curious public. An eager one, too. The National Trust, owners of the house since it was made over to the charity by the Fetherstonhaugh family in 1954, expects 70,000 visitors this summer (more than twice the number who used to visit in a year). For the first time in its 100-year history, the Trust feels impelled to ration tickets (they must be applied for in advance); the appeal of Uppark appears to be magnetic.

The great attraction lies in the nature of the building's restoration: it has, with great expense (pounds 20m), time (six years), and energy (the skilled labour of more than a thousand craftworkers) been restored to more or less the exact state it was in the day before the roof caught fire.

The original house, designed by William Telman and completed in 1690, was built at a much faster rate. Its delightful 18th-century interiors were conjured up at a pace that only that adventurous, theatrical and fast-buck century could have managed. Our Georgian predecessors would have looked on with incredulity at the painstaking effort that has been expended to recreate a past world that has no relevance to the way we live now.

An 18th-century landowner would have used the fire as an excuse to build a brand new house in the latest fashionable style. Had Uppark burned down in 1789 rather than 1989, the William and Mary pile would have vanished and a Neo-Classical house risen from its ashes. The same would have applied in 1889 and even in 1959, when country houses that went up in flames were being replaced by steel and glass boxes in the style of Mies van der Rohe.

Small wonder, then, that the recreation of the original Uppark has fuelled controversy. While there can be no quibbling over funds used to restore the house (the money came from a post-fire insurance pay out), letters to newspapers and opinionated articles from architectural and conservation experts have given credence to the idea that Uppark is a restoration too far.

Given that the interiors were all but destroyed, surely here was an opportunity to create something new, a design for our times? The same argument was raised over the ruins of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, and for a fleeting moment last year it seemed as if the royal family might be persuaded to act as patrons of contemporary design. But nostalgia ruled the regal roost and the rebuilding of Windsor Castle has gone much the same way as Uppark.

The desire to preserve the past, or to recreate an illusion of it, is deeply ingrained in our national pysche. The enduring strength of the National Trust bears witness to what is a fact, not an opinion. The Trust has 2.2 million members, a full-time staff of 2,700 and can call on 27,500 volunteers to help run the 230 historic houses, 580,000 acres of countryside, 130 gardens and 545 miles of natural coastline in its care. Each year, 50 million visits are made, nearly one for every man, woman and child in the country.

The National Trust spends pounds 106m a year; it is a big business by any standards. It also shapes, to a large extent, our view of upper-class domestic life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until Uppark it has given the impression that 18th-century landowners were Sloane Rangers who lived in immaculate country houses decorated by Colefax & Fowler. If this is true, the Trust can rightly be accused of creating fake history rather than conserving the real thing.

At Uppark it has recreated a faded, crumbly Miss Haversham world that is meant to be more "authentic". The word authentic deserves to be placed in inverted commas, because there is no way that we recreate the past without recourse to fantasy. It could be argued that a set designer or film-maker (think of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) is better able to capture the spirit of the days when Uppark was at its height.

After all, it does seem a little mad to have obsessive experts lavish 3,000 working hours on repairing the embroidered drapes of a bed that were all but beyond repair when they caught fire. A form of madness, too, to employ building experts to piece together 5,000 fragments of salvaged woodwork and 1,770 patches of ornamental plaster ceiling from one ground floor room alone, in an admittedly brilliant resurrection of work that rococo plasterers rushed out new in a matter of days.

To question such actions, however, is to fail to understand the magic of the past. The more our daily lives become uncertain in a world where no job, no family, no personal or professional relationship can be a fixed point of reference, the more we cling to the imagined certainties of history. The more "youth" television assaults our eyes and intelligence with fast- talking presenters and jittery camera angles, the more we yearn for Brideshead Revisited. And we are quite prepared to direct prodigious effort into recreating a fictional "Brideshead" past.

The restoration of Uppark has been useful in training and refining the skills of a large number and wide cross-section of craft workers. The National Trust is keen to point out, for example, that until Uppark we knew surprisingly little about the chemical constituency of 18th century plaster ceilings. Not that we will take these lessons to heart; in decorating our own homes we will make lavish use of gypsum plasterboard bought from Wickes and B&Q.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing is arguable, a storm in a bowl of pot-pourri. What is certain is that we cannot revive the spirit of previous ages or burnt-out historic houses. No amount of skill can conjure up a vision of Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson's flighty mistress, dancing naked upon the dining table at Uppark, nor the days when HG Wells' mum, housekeeper here in the 1890s, stubbed her fags on the kitchen floor (although the stains have been faithfully revived). A house like Uppark can only ever be a museum.

It makes little sense to knock the National Trust for the superb work it has carried out at Uppark, for the Trust is simply a part of a world of make-believe that most of us want, even when we know it to be sleight- of-hand trickery. Today, you can order a brand new 1955 D-Type Jaguar. In Darlington and Doncaster, four express steam locomotives based on 1930s and 1940s originals are under construction. The amount of reproduction furniture available is legion. No, until we regain confidence in our abilities and the cockiness of our Georgian forebears, the success and imprint of Uppark and the National Trust proves that there is little escape from an unreal past.