Update – Defining the Decorative Scheme

January 12, 2012

Continuing the process of revealing the ‘hidden gems’ of the Cast Courts, attention has recently turned towards understanding the original decorative scheme(s).  Tried and tested methods of paint sampling and analysis have been the principal tools for this work although it has also been possible to incorporate knowledge gained from contemporary reports from the 1870’s by journalists and commentators.  In order to delve more deeply into the history of decoration of the Cast Courts well over two  hundred and fifty specimens of paint have been taken down to the original wall plasters, timbers, stone etc covering representative areas and including object plinths, architraves, and skirtings.  This has given the team a comprehensive overview of the key areas of historic decoration.  What has been revealed are no less than five distinct decorative schemes reflecting changes in presentation of the Cast Courts and the tastes of institutional decoration over time.

With such a wealth of newly discovered material the challenge for the team has been to decide which, if any, of the schemes to replicate.  After some discussion it was decided to return to the original decorative treatment of the Cast Courts upon their opening in 1873.  There are a number of compelling reasons for this, principal amongst which was the desire to celebrate the unbroken function of the courts dating back nearly 150 years.  Supporting this was data provided by paint analysis which demonstrated that notwithstanding repairs and adoption of new finishes (for example, the replacement of failing distempers with oil based paints) the original decorative scheme remained in place for over 50 years.

However, determining an appropriate historic decorative scheme is only part of the equation.  It has also been necessary to engage in a degree of interpretation.  At the most basic level it must be understood that components of historic paints, varnishes and other finishes such as lead and specific pigments are either no longer available or legal to use!  Secondly recognition is necessary of the differences in lighting sources; whether arising from a comparison of modern electric lighting with gas lamp technology of the 1870s or the impact of day-lighting benefiting from the Clean Air Act of 1956.  Indeed a number of the original lay lights which provided the Courts with the bulk of their natural light were at some point removed. Finally a more esoteric but perhaps no less significant consideration is the manner by which colour is perceived by modern visitors when compared with their Victorian counterparts.

Contemporary reports from the 1870s suggested that the decoration was rather complex and quite delicate.  In view of the difficulty (and cost) of microscopic replication of an intricate decorative scheme, the team have opted to restore the original colour scheme on a ‘thematic’ basis.  That is, the broad sweeps of historic colour will be re-introduced but more intrusive elements of filigree decoration (e.g. reinstatement of the roll of architects’ names and cities) will be omitted save for those original fragments that remain.   It is felt that such a treatment will enhance appreciation of the objects within the cast courts for modern visitors more accustomed to viewing artefacts within a neutral environment.  In this the team have no less a personage than the artist John Millais (1829-1896) on their side who in cautioning Henry Cole, (1808-1882), the first Director of the Museum against over elaborate decoration of the Courts in 1872 stated;

‘Show rooms should be made not to assert themselves’.

Cole ignored this advice and the Courts were painted in shades described as ‘olive green and ‘purple red’.  The western court (currently open to visitors) was painted in red on the lower walls and green above the upper balcony.  The colours were reversed in the adjacent court (currently closed) with the lower face wall being green and the upper balcony level being red.

Trial and error! Small trials of the main wall colours (red and green) were inititally developed in emulsion. Colours were hand mixed. The boards represent a culmination of several days work.

The agreed samples of emulsion are sent off to the manufacturer to be reproduced in a Keim finish (this is a matt finish with a slightly chalky appearance – very close to the original distemper finish).   A third of coat of Keim is being applied to a larger sample board by Steve Farenden of Hare and Humphreys (specialist decorators).

The additional coat of paint is dried off – a hair drier is used to aid the process!

The sample board is held against the surviving fragment of  the original scheme  – consideration has to be given to the layers of dust and dirt sitting on the surface of the wall.

The main wall colour for Gallery 46b has gone through the same process.  The two colours are viewed side by side – to ensure that they complement one another tonally.

Over a 100sqm of wall is painted in the sample colour  (even though the actual redecoration will not be scheduled until later in the year)  – the team felt that it was important to be able to see how the colour reacted through seasonal light changes as this would have the effect of informing the lighting strategy.

The vertical strip of red painted alongside the main body colour was to ensure that the colours complemented each other tonally.  The red in this case will be painted on the walls above the upper balcony.

Skirting and dado rail sample panels painted in oil have undergone similar treatment before arriving at a final decision.

The chosen colours are painted on the wall – a shadow line can be seen above the dado colour.  This is where the dado rail should end.  In the original scheme the names of architects with the birth and death dates and their country of origin would have been stencilled.  However, it has been agreed to use some of the colours from the original stencilled scheme to reproduce the banding effect.   A fragment of the original architects’ name survives elsewhere in the courts and will be revealed as part of the restoration.

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