The Mendelssohn Sundial

Lambeth Council – with funding from the Heritage of London Trust – has started work on a project to restore the Mendelssohn sundial.

The Mendelssohn Sundial, or at least those parts that remain of the original sundial, normally resides in the south-eastern corner of Ruskin Park, but unfortunately hidden away from most users. As part of a restoration project funded through Heritage of London Trust (HOLT) and Lambeth Council, the Sundial has been removed from site and is now undergoing consolidation and repair by an experienced restoration contractor, London Stone Conservation (LSC). As well as dealing with any cracks in the terracotta plinth and protecting it from future weather damage, a new replica sundial will be added.

Once restored, the Sundial will be returned to Ruskin Park in late July, but this time in a much more central location within the Labyrinth Garden, which is found between the Bandstand and Pergola. This will make the Sundial much more visible, as well as with signage enabling park users to better understand its origins and relevance to not just the park’s own rich history, but also that of the wider area of Camberwell and Herne Hill, and the people who lived there.

 

Background – Restoration and relocation of the Mendelssohn Sundial

Historical context of Ruskin Park and the Mendelssohn Sundial

 Ruskin Park is a historic landscape of national importance, signified by its inclusion on Historic England’s “Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest” (Listing 100831).  The Park was formed in part from gardens of six early nineteenth century villas on Denmark Hill, demolished to make way for the park, which was opened in 1907 and a further parcel of land added in 1908.

The Mendelssohn Sundial was erected to commemorate the visit of the composer Felix Mendelssohn to the area, allegedly to Dane Hill, a house which was at 168 Denmark Hill, unfortunately long demolished. Made from terracotta, it is decorated with Tudor roses around the top of the terracotta pedestal, and once had a brass sundial on top – now missing – with an inscription around its base, which read ‘Here stood the house where Mendelssohn wrote the Spring Song 1842’.

The Sundial is an important popular local landmark intimately linked to the history of Camberwell and Herne Hill, and an integral element of Ruskin Park. It is a unique structure and deemed irreplaceable in terms of its construction and context. Unfortunately over time the Sundial has suffered some neglect, and its original brass sundial top is missing, and its terracotta base suffers from cracks and poor past repairs, which make it look ‘fragmented’ and vulnerable to collapse.

The Sundial is resting on a poorly-laid out base of stones set in concrete, and is bounded on three sides by cast iron railings which need cleaning and resetting. In addition, the Sundial is poorly located, well away from regular public view and access, and feels neglected and unloved. It needs to be relocated to a better position within the park.

Restoration of the Mendelssohn Sundial

The plan to restore the Mendelssohn Sundial will rectify all existing structural defects that adversely affect its current condition and appearance, which will include replacing the original bronze sundial top (securely affixed to the restored plinth) with its original size, style and inscription.

Works will include all of the recommendations made by Richard Rogers Conservation Limited so that it is in a suitable condition.  In addition it is proposed, rather than to return the Sundial to its present location once it has been restored, to physically move it to a more appropriate position within Ruskin Park so it can better be seen, accessed and interpreted. The preferred new location for the Sundial will be in the centre of the Labyrinth Garden.  This location is more open, lighter and with better views into and across the park compared to where the Sundial presently is, and means it can be protected and monitored better.  These relocation works will involve, once the Sundial has been fully restored in a conservator’s studio, to have it reseated on the ground. The existing metal guard rails, treated and repainted, will be installed around the Sundial to offer protection, together with a new small interpretative sign.

On restoration to its new location the Sundial will be fully accessible to the general public who can safely approach, study and explore it, and the monument will be incorporated into the council’s normal asset maintenance programme.

Why is it important that the Mendelssohn Sundial is restored?

The Sundial is in poor condition and failure to take action to repair and stabilise it exposes it to the risk it will further deteriorate to a point where it is no longer viable and has to be demolished, which then denies the public the ability to view and appreciate it. Restoration (and relocation) of the Sundial will remove many of the factors which presently place it, a valuable and irreplaceable item within a listed heritage park, at risk of further deterioration and ultimately loss. It also enables the council and community to reduce or avoid harm to the historic environment by understanding and managing this risk, actively conserving a historic item of high cultural value so it remains, and becomes even more, publicly accessible.

What are the benefits of restoring the Mendelssohn Sundial?

Being within a public park the Sundial will continue to be fully accessible to the public but in a much safer condition to touch and approach, without the risk of the structure being damaged or causing damage or injury to the public. The project will also allow Lambeth Council and community stakeholders (e.g. Friends of Ruskin Park and the Herne Hill/Camberwell Societies) to understand and acquire skills in the assessment, conservation, management and promotion of heritage assets.

What will the future be for the Mendelssohn Sundial on restoration?

The restored Sundial will remain integrated into the council’s asset portfolio and protected from future loss or disposal; sensitive repairs and cleansing will be undertaken, on advice from Historic England and Lambeth Planning, to maintain its condition following restoration. We also intend to commission interpretative signage to be erected next to the Sundial to inform and educate as to its history and restoration. Restoration of the Sundial will enable it to be used for educational, community or heritage activities, including wider enjoyment and appreciation of the structure, without the risk of it being damaged. The project will also enable people to fully understand the Sundial’s origins and how it relates to the history of the local area, including Ruskin Park as a whole, the buildings that once occupied Denmark Hill and the people who lived and worked there including John Ruskin and Felix Mendelssohn.

Why is it necessary to relocate the Mendelssohn Sundial to a different location within Ruskin Park?

Following consultation with Historic England, as well as advice from Lambeth Planning (Urban Design and Conservation), the general opinion is that relocating the Sundial to a more central location is in the best – and longer term interests – of the Sundial. The general feeling is that in its current location the Sundial is a little lost in the park, even if it is, in theory, close to the garden in 168 Denmark Hill where Mendelssohn would have once sat. Giving it a more open and prominent location allows the public to see it better, understand why it is there and what it commemorates in its wider historical and social context.

As part of the relocation process, the Sundial will be free of the dense tree cover that it currently suffers from; this will not only improve the landscape and visual setting of the monument, but also significantly reduce the risk of structural damage to the restored structure from tree root-related subsidence/heave, bird droppings and tree sap or pollen dropping onto the plinth and new sundial.

 

Abridged from Lambeth Council’s The Mendelssohn Sundial, Ruskin Park Restoration and Relocation Brief.