WAVING THE OILY RAG

What, one may ask, is Oily Rag? To us, Oily Rag means the gentle art of leaving well alone. Whatever it may be – a bike, a car, a house, a painting, a piece of furniture or clothing – it is only original once. To restore it, no matter how skilfully or accurately, is in our view to destroy the evidence of use that is a major part of the appeal of an antique or vintage object, as opposed to even a careful reproduction.

Of course, there are instances where an element of replacement is inevitable. An antique table may have lost a leg. A priceless Old Master painting may have been damaged or inexpertly restored in the past [or have a hole knocked by a billionaire’s elbow – Ed.]. A period house, perhaps hundreds of years old, may have been superficially ‘modernised’. An old car or motorcycle may have had inappropriate new components substituted for old. But does this mean full blown restoration is the only solution?

No. Our mission here at Oily Rag is to promulgate the opposite view, even to the extent of encouraging de-storation rather than restoration. In the UK in the 19th century, the ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings, particularly churches, had become a mania. To many architects of that time, the term meant destroying the original structure and rebuilding it in a style more ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ in the light of contemporary theory. That academic evidence would no doubt have mystified its original builders, who may well have been simple, uneducated local tradesmen whose only training had consisted of apprenticeships served decades beforehand in the time honoured methods of their forebears.

The 'smoking room'...although with no electricity, both the lights and the heating 'smoked'...

Very often it is these long forgotten misunderstandings, the makeshift solutions, the crudities even, that make an old object unique and give it a charm no textbook replica can possess. William Morris (1834-1896), the great Arts and Crafts theorist and practitioner, argued passionately for repair rather than restoration. His belief was that any new work necessary to ensure the survival of an old building should be left looking new, rather than artificially patinated. His philosophy survives today in the manifesto of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings – a UK organisation which he founded and which is still consulted on such matters.

We wouldn’t go quite that far. At the risk of upsetting devotees of Mr Morris, if an otherwise untouched old vehicle came into our possession that had been marred by the inappropriate replacement of a worn seat cushion or a crumpled fender, we wouldn’t hesitate to seek out sufficient well-worn leather to make good the deficiency, or to match the old paint on the rest of the bodywork. In both cases we would even patinate it artificially, rather than leave these alterations to spoil the effect of a venerable artefact that had in other respects stood the test of time.

Are we alone in these beliefs? To judge from the prices fetched at auction by unrestored, well provenanced original antique furniture, pictures, rugs, clocks, pottery and almost anything else we can think of, the answer is no. Collectors in these fields have learned to appreciate the fact that, by favouring objects in untouched condition, they are protecting themselves against secret enhancement or fraudulent alteration as well as preserving a rare survival from the distant past with a particular history of human use and even misuse.

Our aim here is to document finds and discoveries in all fields of collecting which embody these ideals. Likewise, we shall not hesitate to draw attention to what we regard as acts of vintage vandalism. If you share our (possibly eccentric) tastes and preferences, or even if you don’t, your participation in this crusade is invited…

- Douglas Blain

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