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Restoration Documentation


- Background

An illustrated paper presented to the 1995 OHTA conference in Sydney, outlining the techniques and philosophy of documentation and assessment in the process of organ restoration as evolved and practiced by the South Island Organ Co. Ltd. (with spoken interpolations).
Ralph Sewell: When I began my organ building career in 1965 the concept of organ conservation in New Zealand was hardly thought of, as we understand it today. I have only recently come to realise how far ahead of his time was Ralph Sewell, a name which probably won't be known in Australia but is well known in New Zealand.

Ralph Sewell was a boat builder turned organbuilder who trained in Auckland during the 50's and 60's with Bill Croft who was the director of George Croft and Son which was at that time the main established organ building firm in New Zealand. He then worked on his own account through the 60's and 70's restoring organs too small and old to be of interest to the Croft establishment.

To him we owe the survival of some of New Zealand's most valuable historic organs such as the Snetzler at Te Aroha, the Avery at Ponsonby, the Webster at Auckland Museum, (the first organ made in New Zealand), the Bishop barrel organ at Paihia and the Bevington at Waimate North. A taped interview of Ralph by Ron Newton in 1992 makes it clear that his strongly conservationist approach was not generally appreciated by his clients or the organ world at large whose focus on modernisation and improvement, resulted in the value of his work being largely unrecognised.

Otherwise any restoration work done in the first 25 year period after the second world war was classed as Cleaning & Overhaul and was reserved by establishment organ builders for slack periods, on organs where insufficient funds or lack of interest precluded the preferred possibilities of replacement or rebuilding.

The SIOC experience: The South Island Organ Company's restoration of the 2 manual 1877 Bevington at All Saints Anglican, Dunedin in 1968-69 was its first serious attempt at restoration but came about for similar reasons to those just outlined. Of course some changes such as the fitting of tuning slides, shortening pallets, new plastic stop-knobs, a balanced swell pedal and the removal of the hand-blowing mechanism were made that today would not be countenanced. However, the Company's youthful zeal coupled with the fundamental quality of the organ, and the skill required to deal with the excessive rust damage and wear and tear, engendered a sense of achievement and respect for the idea of restoration that began a process of rethinking that flowered again in 1977-78 with the restoration of the 3 manual 1878 Halmshaw & Sons of Birmingham organ at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch: This would arguably be New Zealand's premier architectural cathedral - a magnificent building and a magnificent organ. The Halmshaw firm which is very little known in England today as far as I can make out, sent a number of organs to New Zealand including one in Dunedin identical to this one. The significance of this project was that the Company for the first time saw restoration as the best option and fought off concerted opposition from those who saw this organ as quaint but quite unsuitable for the Cathedral. Fortunately for the organ the cost of restoration was much more in tune with the Cathedral's budget than the options of a major rebuild or new instrument, a factor which finally clinched the argument in favour of preserving this, New Zealand's most significant surviving 19th century organ.

OHTA: Soon after the completion of this restoration in 1978, I made my first trip to Australia to attend the Melbourne Festival of Organ and Harpsichord and stumbled on the first OHTA conference, running concurrently. I have never forgotten the sense of excitement and relief I felt at finding a group of people who were dedicated to the cause of organ preservation and restoration, and my discovery that the truths of this cause which the Company was struggling to work out from its own convictions and experience in isolation in New Zealand, were not only shared by an organised group in Australia, but had already been formalised in Germany in the Weilheimer Regulativ. The success of the Halmshaw restoration, coupled with this timely meeting and a growing sense of the Company's ability and therefore responsibility to influence the fate of much of the country's disappearing organ heritage through it's expanding national tuning and maintenance connection, set it firmly on the path of conservation.

Tuning & Maintenance: In a very real sense I believe that the quality of organ tuning and maintenance has a powerful effect on the perceived value of instruments and their rate of survival. The Company’s philosophy has always been to establish a tuning and maintenance regime that allows sufficient time to attend to those factors that will, over time, stabilise the tuning, pipe-speech and action regulation, control wind-leaks and pressure regulation, and achieve the utmost reliability and musical quality, for a given organ's age, condition and environment. Only as a last resort is major work insisted on to keep an organ playable. Too often organs have been allowed by builders to deteriorate, perhaps in the hope of generating premature major work or replacement, or by owners in the hope of saving on the maintenance budget. In today's environment this approach is so damaging to the future of the organ that no short-term gains are worth the risk of poor maintenance.

Far from being a chore or easy money spinner I have come to regard good tuning and maintenance of organs as one of the most valuable activities and resources of a business, particularly if it is focussed on restoration. Here on the tuning rounds one freely learns the long term effect of all decisions made so easily in the factory; the importance of effective maintenance access and adjustment, the effects of climatic, acoustic, and spatial environments, the suitability of materials and lubricants, and the chance to build up an invaluable database of comparative information from which one may discern the right path in restoring altered organs back to their original makers' intentions. Most importantly one learns to peel off the blinkers so often put in place by our tendency to focus on acoustic effect and contemporary aesthetic style. Only then may we truly appreciate the quality of an organ's design and workmanship, and rediscover it's true artistic purpose.

The New Zealand situation: To this day the pipe organ industry in New Zealand is completely unregulated and unassisted except that funding for some projects is aided by a few charitable trusts and in very recent years the New Zealand Lotteries Commission. The New Zealand Organ Preservation Trust (NZOPT) is a new light on the conservation horizon but is still a fledgling body without the power or experience of OHTA. There is no protection offered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (equivalent of the Australian National Trust) who can classify buildings for preservation but not their moveable contents, nor is there any equivalent to the Heritage Council of NSW or the Historic Buildings Council of Victoria. The Antiquities Act in New Zealand offers similar protection in theory against the export of valuable historic organs as does the Australian Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act, but as there is no classification process for organs in New Zealand, this is of doubtful value.

The point I am making in relation to the documentation of the restoration process is to show that in the unregulated environment of New Zealand, clients generally do not expect to pay for what they could regard as a non-essential part of the work. Consequently the Company has to pay for this in terms of time and equipment, and must therefore carefully weigh up the value of any documentation.

© John K. Hargraves

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