Discovering the Decorative Borders
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.