The crumble…

IMG_2746Seaton Delaval Hall Marble Floor:
Our stone masons have carefully numbered, plotted the position of and lifted every black and white stone slab from the floor in the Central Hall. This had to be done because the slabs were unstable and loose, so that every time they were walked on, there was the very real risk of them moving against each other and chipping the edges. They were loose, of course because of the disastrous fire of 1822 which left the Central Hall roofless and open to the weather for 40 years. So in a sense we are continuing the work of John Dobson the famous 19th cent architect, who first drew the building pre the fire in 1816, and then in the 1860’s re-roofed and stabilised the building.
Once lifted all the numerous cracked and shattered slabs have been painstakingly bonded together again using resin adhesive mixed with pigment, and stainless steel dowels to give them strength. The original three layers of screed have been replaced where they had been weathered to nothing and the floor re-laid, with each slab returning to its original position. The final work is to replace those that were too badly damaged to be re-used. It took much looking at small samples and comparing them with the originals and trying to allow for several hundred years of dirt and wear, not to mention the fire’s effects, but we have found Carrera Marble and black limestone that match the originals closely.
The statues standing high along the walls of the Marble Hall, are one of the crowning wonders of Seaton Delaval Hall. When the Trust took on the property, there was a fear that the statues were about to fall from their niches, such was their condition. Emergency first aid was carried out, so that for the last 3 years they have been bandaged to support especially fragile pieces. Now with the SITA Trust supporting the Trust’s work we are about to start work to stabilise them. This is difficult and skilled work, the Trust’s Specialist Adviser has worked closely with a freelance conservator from Edinburgh, called Graciela Ainsworth, to develop a method of treating them.
The way the statues is made has added enormously to the challenges, formed round an iron framework, which is fixed into the walls, the statues are made of brick, plaster, terracotta and most unusually of all, plaster soaked fabric, tacked onto the figures and then finally shaped. So the work will have to be from scaffolding. And not just any scaffolding, but to avoid putting too much weight on the marble floor, we’ll be using aluminium scaffolding.
Graciela will have a painstaking and careful task ahead of her; she’ll fist clean the statues, then using several different types of consolidate she’ll stabilise the plaster to stop it falling off, fill the many cracks, and most carefully of all, gently re-attach the plaster soaked fabric, which is very fragile and weak.
We’ll be using a revolutionary way to stop the iron framework that lies at the hearts of the statues, from rusting any further. We’re working with a company in Manchester who have developed a way of stopping iron rusting using an electric current. This will be the first time this has been done on sculpture as it is more commonly used to stop iron beams and braces in buildings rusting. The company and Graciela have been working together to find ways to use this technology, which if successful will protect the statues from further decay for years to come.
Amid all the excitement of projects such as the one at present happening on the Central Hall, the daily, weekly and monthly work of the Conservation Team carries on. The set of needlework covered chairs that had been in the Long Gallery have been moved into the Drawing Room. This might seem a straightforward thing, consisting of simply moving furniture round, but of course in conservation nothing is ever so clear cut. In moving the chairs to where they are now, we have been able to better protect them from light and so take off the covers that have shielded them and let our visitors see them properly.
Great though it is to be able to show people what has been described as among the best set of needlework in this style in the Trust, it comes with complications. Now they are exposed to dust, and through extensive study of dust, (quite a specialised interest!), we know that most dust comes from either visitors clothes or the building itself. And of course every time a textile is cleaned there is a minute amount of damage to the textile. So we need to balance the amount of damage with the risk of not cleaning them and the huge benefit of letting people see them properly.
The Conservation Team have started a programme of monitoring the amount of dust that is building up on them. With this information we’ll know when we need to clean them and when we can leave them for a bit longer. And of course cleaning them is not straightforward, we lay a fine mesh on the surface and then vacuum through this, using a Museum Vacuum with the suction set to low, for a set period of time. The mesh stops any bits of fabric being hovered up. To see how much dust we’re removing a piece of muslin is put over the hoover pipe. And we’ll then document how dirty the pieces of muslin are and how much of the original textile has been removed as well.
Window paint colour:
What is hard enough to get right when it’s a case of choosing paint colours, becomes much more complex when choosing for a grade 1 listed architectural masterpiece such as Seaton Delaval Hall. The windows at the moment are painted with a white gloss, this dates from the 1950’s and is too bright and hard, the original was thought to be something vaguely stone coloured.
To make sure we got the right, or at least more appropriate colour we asked a specialist chemist to analyse the paint layers and try to find the lowest and so oldest layer and colour. Of course this then means the hunt is on to find the oldest window frame or door casing. We are lucky in that, although most of the windows are replacements, either from John Dobson’s work in the 1860’s or from Lord Hasting renovation in the 1950’s/’60’s, there is an 18th cent window in the small room at the end of the East Wing, the Pavillion. This has some graffiti on it, an uncomplimentary sketch of a figure with a big nose, and most crucially a date – 1787. So here was our dated and 18th cent window.
The specialist took samples from this and several other possibly 18th cent windows, and also from the walls in the Long Gallery. The final analysis has been done and the colour is, as thought, an off white slightly stone colour. This will make a significant change to the Hall’s appearance. And although we’re back where we started from, at least the final colour will be based on evidence, not guesswork.


More of the Muses.

As part of the work about to start on the Plaster Statues at Seaton, we asked a local Vet to bring his portable X Ray equipment and tackle making images from the top of a high Tower Scaffold. We know that the statues are made from mortar, plaster and plaster soaked cloth, all wrapped and formed around an iron frame. But until we had these X Rays taken we had no idea of the condition of the iron frames. They have after all survived fire, the roof falling in and molten lead running down the walls, decades of weather and even being shot at, so it wouldn’t have be suprising if they were in terrible condition.
It’s unusual for a Vet to X Ray something 250 years old! He had to find a way to slide a plate behind the statue without damaging the fragile plaster and disturbing any loose bits, which he managed successfully, producing amazingly detailed images. All done whilst standing at the top of a tall Tower Scaffold and face to face with the Muse of Architecture. Rather nicely he has named each image with its correct anatomical description, so the image of the head below is labelled Ventro Dorsal, those of the knees are Carpus and the chest is Thorax.
What stands out immediately in the X Ray of the Shins above are the nails, then the iron work at the centre of the plaster. The nails are original and are holding the plaster soaked textile onto the plaster beneath. We were amazed at both their length and condition, which seems to be remarkably good. The iron work can be seen and wrapped round it is a fine iron wire, presumably to help key the plaster and give it support. In the image of the head the iron can be seen looped around and then bound with this fine wire. The wire that is visible bound horizontally around the head is part of some emergency first aid that was done a couple of years ago. We were worried that the head especially was unstable and could fall apart, so wire was gently bound around it with a layer of padding beneath. For the last couple of years the statues have been standing in their niches with various bandaged legs and heads.
What both X Rays also show is the fractured state of the plaster, all those dark lines and spaces are cracks and voids. The treatment that will be starting in the next month, once the marble floor is ok to be carry the weight of the scaffold, will seek to consolidate all these cracks and voids. Re-attaching any loose bits and leaving the statues stable and standing proudly in their niches for the next century or two.

View from the scaffold

Seaton Delaval Blog
Around the Central Hall by Scaffold
Going up the scaffold that surrounds the Central Hall is a wonderful way to come face to face with the work of the original builders. It’s also quite high up so for those who find heights a little alarming, it can need a certain steeling of nerve! And of course as a building site hard hat and hi-vis is essential. The quality of the stone carving is amazing to see, the capitals either side of windows are crisp and detailed, where they survive, there are many that are badly eroded. It could be that the stone used was easier to carve and perhaps softer, so it hasn’t survived as well. We are replacing several that are so damaged that they no longer support the window lintel above. We will also be replacing a huge piece of stone, one of the cornices at the top of a column on the North façade, has lost a great chunk from a corner, and is supported at present with metal bars hammered in underneath. This is not stable, so Team Force will be carving a new piece to match the original.

Sean, the site foreman, pointed out the initials and dates deeply carved into the stones that from the base of a parapet around one of the corner towers. They are I.W. 1729 and G.R? 1721, we don’t know and probably never will, who they were. Masons almost certainly but what’s the significance of the dates – when the men started work at Seaton perhaps, or when they had finished their apprenticeships? Records almost never mention the people who actually built these amazing buildings, so these carved initials are an intriguing glimpse of them.
Whilst the scaffold is in place we asked a stone conservator to have a look at the carved façade on the North side. Where the columns project forwards and form a corner, the level of erosion to the carvings is marked, they are creating eddies of wind which has eroded the stone. The conservators have worked with Team Force to consolidate the most at risk stone details on this façade. Walking around the scaffold it’s great to see the new lead work covering the top of the cornice that runs around the building, this will throw water off the stonework and not let it soak in as it has been. The cornice was originally covered in lead but at some point the lead has been removed. Also now protected are the tops of the columns. Team Force has been re-pointing the miles of joints with lime mortar mixed to be the right colour. This is essential to keep water out of the stonework, and would have been part of regular maintenance of the building.
From the scaffold there are great views of the roofs of the East and West wing. The East has its lovely new stainless steel roof and bright new stone; the West is felt roofed and is next on the list for major work.