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Gilded Animals and Fluffy Stuff

August 26, 2011

This is the sixth in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Linda Raitosalo from Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

The project at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is nearing its end; time has flown by so fast! When I arrived with my classmate from Finland to take a part in this fantastic student project, hoping to gain valuable experience and get to know other conservation students from other countries. I’m happy to say that the project has exceeded my expectations. As our studies are mainly on easel paintings and such, I have never worked on murals before and I find I’m rather enjoying the experience. There is something especially hands-on kind of fun about climbing up and down scaffolding and working on such a large scale.

Cleaning the Gilded Capitals

But sometimes the sheer scale of things can be a little bit overwhelming. It’s easy to see only the big picture, but it’s also a good idea to take a look at some of the fun little details. The murals themselves have an amazing amount of detail, but they are not the only ones. For the last three days I have been cleaning some of the gilded capitals that decorate the hall. They have been carved out of the same red sandstone of which the whole building has been built and all of them depict leaves and fruit, matching the theme of the entire hall.

This bit of decorative art is easy to dismiss, unless you look closely. For hidden in between the leaves, twigs and fruit are small animal figures, some of which are mythical and some real. I think my personal favourite would be this little winged lion that lives on the East wall near the Southeast corner.

Close up of the Gilded Capitals

But I think the most peculiar carving we have seen is in the stairway outside the Great Hall that has pedestals with a similar style carving on them. The pedestals are a later addition and are not part of the original architecture. Between the 2nd and 3rd floor on the East side of the building, there crouching amongst the leaves on one of them is a figure of a small man wearing a motorcycling helmet!

Carved Pedestal Detail

During this project, as we are working very close to the murals and some parts of the architecture, we get to notice things that aren’t easy to see from down below, or you wouldn’t think to look for – things that are easy to miss. There has been one thing however, that has been absolutely impossible to miss, and that is cotton wool. We use it for cleaning, and it is everywhere. We work two floors above ground level, and somehow the cotton wool has made its way down six flights of stairs to the bottom. It clings to our clothes and our hair. Every day when we leave work it makes us look an absolute mess.

Discovering the Decorative Borders

August 5, 2011

This is the fifth in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Kristina Mandy from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

It has been almost three weeks since beginning my work as a student conservation assistant on murals at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I can’t believe the project is so close to being finished. Having just finished my first year in a postgraduate course in the conservation of easel paintings, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to work on paintings outside of smaller scale works on canvas or panel. The William Hole mural project allows me the opportunity to work on large paintings in an architectural setting (and getting to work on scaffolding has been really exciting).

Kristina working on the Border

One of my favorite parts of working on this project has been the chance to see many of the details of the murals and borders that are not as visible from the ground. Though the constellations on the ceiling and scenes on the walls are spectacular, one of the most unexpectedly lovely parts of the painting scheme has been the decorative borders. Some of these borders feature different plant species found in Scotland, creating beautiful patterns out of repeating shapes of leaves, flowers, and fruits. Columns in the upper level are topped with carved capitals featuring gilded leaves and hidden squirrels, echoing the arboreal motif in the borders.

Capitals in the Great Hall

Foliage Detail to William Hole's Mural

A wonderful discovery occurred while cleaning one of the northern sections of the ceiling and the decorative border beneath it. The current pattern of the border on the east wall of this section features red lions on a green background, however incised lines in the plaster underneath revealed a previous incarnation of the border.

Red Lion Border to William Hole's Mural

The different aspects of this previous decorative pattern that are visible on the east wall include a series of butterfly-shaped elements, a repeated set of crosses within circles, and a diamond-shaped lattice structure. It is unclear if these elements were meant to work together in one border or if they are part of separate versions of a proposed initial decoration for this area. The circumscribed crosses appear to be particularly Celtic-inspired. It is known that the Board deciding on the decoration of the Portrait Gallery was attempting to move away from a neo-Celtic design and instead emphasize the medieval and heraldic aspects of Scottish history. As Helen Smailes points out in her history of the Portrait Gallery, the artist William Hole initially produced designs for Celtic decoration but these were rejected by the Board.

Melinex Photo

A different previous pattern for the border is incised into the south walls of two bays in the northern section of the ceiling and we plan on doing another tracing to determine the pattern in this area. I hope that the information gained from further knowledge of these previous decorations can help reveal more about William Hole’s artistic process and the attempts at finding a perfect final design for the borders of the Portrait Gallery.

Though I am sad to see this project end as it has been a great deal of fun, I am eager to visit the gallery when it opens to the public in November of this year and finally be able to fully experience Hole’s beautiful work.

Cleaning the Surface Dirt of History

August 1, 2011

This is the fourth in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Leonora Burton from the University of Northumbria.

I was thrilled to secure a place working at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery during the summer break of my easel paintings conservation course at the University of Northumbria. The experience of staying in the lovely city of Edinburgh with the opportunity of meeting and working alongside senior conservators and other conservation students has been a real pleasure.

Cleaning the Ceiling of the Great Hall

The main conservation treatment required on William Hole’s ceiling paintings and murals was primarily surface cleaning. Understanding how a single surface can present an array of differing dirt problems has been a welcome challenge and has required us to examine and adapt how we treat the dirt with a variety of different aqueous cleaning solutions. We discovered that the surface dirt differed in thickness and adhesion across the expanse of the gallery ceiling and removing this build up, deposited over the last century, was particularly satisfying. When you consider how, when and from whom this dirt came it is also quite thought-provoking!

Working on the Freize treatment

I have enjoyed working in situ moving and working around the artwork rather than positioning the artwork to suit my own comfort (we usually work at easels), even if this did mean conquering the dizzying heights of our scaffolding tower! This height did however allow us the privileged opportunity to get up close amongst William Hole’s paintings, gold stars and decorative borders. Exploring how the artist planned and executed his work on such a large scale has been fascinating and the team has discussed this at length together with his materials and methods. Our unique perspective has allowed us to appreciate the huge amount of thought and dedication shown by the artist in realising the scheme.

I have come away from this project more confident at working in situ and I especially enjoyed working as part of a large conservation team. I also feel I have learnt about an artist I previously knew little about and in turn more about Scottish history.

Cleaning the Processional Frieze

July 18, 2011

This is the third in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Pearl O’Sullivan from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Faces from the South wall

Cleaning the Processional Frieze - View onto the Scaffolding

Last Monday I began working as a student conservation assistant on the cleaning of wall mural in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A week (and piles of dirty cotton wool) later, I find myself in the midst of an exciting conservation treatment. This treatment, removing decades of disfiguring dirt, is revealing the paint layers of an early Scottish history as depicted in painted wall murals of artist William Hole.

My work last week was mainly focused on the processional frieze painted on canvas and adhered to the wall in the lower level of the Gallery’s central hall. Sitting atop the central bird cage scaffolding – harnessed-in securely- I began by testing and then cleaning areas of the gold painted stucco. The result was immediately illuminating, revealing a brighter and more reflective surface – warmly lit by the red lights hanging in the central hall.

Working on the south wall of the frieze has brought me face-to-face with many historic figures from Scotland’s historic past. The clean has relieved these figures of a heavy dirt deposit layer, freshening up many of their century-old faces and costumes. The experience has also encouraged me to freshen up on my knowledge of Scottish history – costume, armour and ornament!

Face detail of Boyd

Below the frieze, in the spandrels of the architrave, there are twelve heraldic shields representing different boroughs of Scotland. These are immediately visible to anyone looking up from the ground floor to the frieze and ceiling above. During cleaning, severe levels of dirt were removed from the surface in these areas – exposing glossier surfaces and brightly gilded crests on these proudly positioned symbols of Scottish cities.

Stirling Crest

During my time cleaning the frieze, we were visited by a number of photographers from the national press. I was happy to have my picture taken but was nevertheless, still slightly taken aback to see my own beaming face in the newspaper the following day.

Photograph of the Conservation Team at Work

This week I have moved to cleaning the ceiling paintings of the patterned night sky with gilded stars. It is hotter and grimier working at height on the removal of often severe and uneven surface dirt. Rest assured I’m still smiling (not so widely as to catch drips of ceiling juice!) and am still thoroughly enjoying myself working on this stellar conservation project!

News from the Scaffolding

July 8, 2011

This is the second in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Stephanie Oman from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation:

When I heard about the William Hole mural project at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, my immediate response was, “when can I go?” As a Historic Decorative Finishes major, I am learning to specialize in painted surfaces on a variety of substrates. Many of those projects involve interior architectural elements, including murals like the ones in the Portrait Gallery.

Eeva working on the scaffold

Despite some initial problems with lost baggage and my failure to bring warm clothing, I was thrilled to start working on the project in late June. I was assigned to work on a scaffold with Eeva, a graduate student from the Northumbria Conservation Program. We have really enjoyed exchanging notes about the similarities and differences between our training programs, as well as Scottish and American cuisine, weather, and fashion.

Stephanie setting down flaking paint with a tacking iron

We were assigned to a corner of the ambulatory level where there was a small amount of flaking paint from previous damage to the walls. In addition to cleaning the ceiling in this corner of the gallery, we worked with Karen, Fiona, and Lesley to select the appropriate consolidant for re-adhering the flaking paint to the plaster substrate. After a few attempts to use an overall-consolidation system, we found that it was necessary to consolidate each flaking area by applying the adhesive behind the flaking paint with a brush. Once the adhesive was applied, we reduced the cupping of the paint flakes with a small amount of heat and pressure with a tacking iron. Although the work was a bit time-consuming, we were very satisfied with the results!

Up close and personal with the Portrait Gallery murals

July 6, 2011

This is the first in a series of guest blogs written by visiting students who are working on the conservation of the decorative scheme created by William Hole. This post was written by Eeva Kukkonen from Northumbria University:

In my conservation course we mainly deal with easel paintings in the safety of a comfortable studio, so getting a chance to take part in this project seemed very exciting and slightly terrifying at the same time! For someone who is not very used to extreme heights, climbing up the scaffolding for the first time seemed quite daunting. However, quickly I gained confidence in working far, far away from the ground and even began enjoying the new perspective.

Applying filling material to a damaged area of the murals

I also quickly forgot my issues with heights when we delved into the challenging task of repairing the damaged areas of the painted wall. After successfully consolidating the flaking paint film, we began to apply white filling material to the areas where the original paint and in some areas a layer of plaster had been lost. This was done in order to create an even overall surface and a base for in-painting, which was done with entirely reversible watercolours, imitating the surrounding areas of original paint, thus disguising the losses. At times we were scratching our heads when the watercolour dried to a completely different tone to what we had expected, but in the end everyone seemed to be happy with the results. Even our toughest critics –ourselves- ended up fooled. This became apparent when we began criticising some apparently dodgy areas of paint, which in fact on closer examination, turned out to be part of the original design!

The same area after filling and in-painting the damages

The Storm Before the Calm

July 1, 2011

One major conservation project that has been frequently discussed since the National Galleries of Scotland handed the Portrait Gallery over to the building contractors two years ago is the cleaning of William Hole’s painted surfaces. By that I mean not only the murals depicting key events in Scottish history on the ambulatory level, nor just the splendid gilded processional frieze around the Great Hall – but also the spectacular astronomically-themed ceiling with applied constellations.
Tyvek Clad Ambulatory

Surreptitious tests from my scaffolding eyrie all those many months ago while applying a protective layer of tyvek to the walls revealed an alarming but not that surprising, accumulation of dirt.

Cleaning test on Ceiling

Unlike the mural and frieze schemes that were cleaned a mere 30 years ago, as far as we are aware the ceiling has never been tackled since the building opened in the 1890s. Greasy deposits from Queen Street, tobacco stains and general household grime have combined to create a significantly murky surface. It was clearly unthinkable to re-open the building without making every effort to ensure that these great works of art, such a fundamental and unique aspect of the building, as inaccessible as they may initially appear, were given some much needed conservation attention.

Thanks to the generous funding of WREN (Waste Recycling Environmental Ltd) over the last couple of months we have leapt into action with our project manager hard hats securely affixed and our steel toe-capped shoes at the ready!

On Monday 20th June an ambitious 6 week cleaning project began.  Recruited to assist the Conservation Department and to manage a large and international team of conservation students, are conservators Fiona Allardyce and Karen Dundas. They both bring to the project their extensive experience of other similar decorative, architectural schemes of this period in Scotland, most notably at Mansfield Traquair Centre nearby.  Ten students from post-graduate painting conservation courses at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, Courtauld Institute, London, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki, Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart and Winterthur University, Delaware will all take part and gain invaluable experience by doing so.

And so the planning weeks have passed and we can now begin. Having believed that scaffolding in the building had finally departed along with the contractors another extensive ‘birdcage’ has just been installed in the Great Hall this week.

Scaffolding going up June 2011

The materials, including a mountain of cotton wool, have been ordered, important Health and Safety issues are being addressed and cleaning tests are underway to establish a sound and effective methodology. Personally, after all these preparations I just cannot wait to get started. Keep abreast of our progress by following our regular updates on the Heads Up Blog.

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