Seaton 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.