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Conserving the wall in room 109

by Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist

For those of you unaware of our most recent discovery, during fit out works in our northern wing something rather spectacular was revealed. Following a decision to attach a radiator to the rear of the western wall in Room 109, a section of plasterboard was removed in order to inspect the structural integrity of this partition. What we found behind this plasterboard however was truly amazing.

Hidden behind a 19th century timber framed wall to which the modern plasterboard was attached was a daub and plaster wall almost identical to our ancient partitions in the loft. Unlike the loft walls however, this wall had been hand painted with a series of vertical stripes incorporating a foliage based theme. Conservators were quickly called in, paint analysis was undertaken and the paintwork was tentatively dated to between the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The paint analysis suggested that initially the daub wall had been left blank. A limewash was later added, although this did not cover the exposed timbers. After a while a second limewash was painted on and this time the timbers were covered, with the limewash coat forming the base to which the paint was applied. In total 8 colours were used, with the various aqueous paints primarily comprising chalk mixed with a glue / gum. The orange appears to have been the last paint added to the wall.

The story of the wall didn’t stop there however, and this brings us up to the current work which is taking place on this special partition. Although the paint had survived in relatively good condition the wall was in need of conservation if it was to survive. The experts at Arte Conservation were called and after a visit from the director, Tom Organ, a methodology for the preservation of the wall was established.

This brings us to the arrival of two of the most recent members of the restoration project, Arte Conservation’s Greg Howarth and Kirsten Hooton. Greg has been working in restoration for a long time. He started his masters in art conservation at Queens’ University in Kingston, Ontario in 1982 and after graduating moved to the UK in 1987. Kirsten has been working as a freelance conservator for one year. She recently graduated in Conservation and Restoration from the University of Lincoln, one of the leading academic institutions in the Conservation field.

So, one of my first questions was of course, is this an impressive wall then or what?! Given that both Kirsten and Greg have seen quite a few wall paintings they were very polite, but they did agree that the Fulham Palace wall is certainly rather special. It is large for a domestic painting and we are very lucky that it has survived. Greg compared it to a wall painting he has recently worked on at Headstone Manor in Harrow which has been dated to 1610. He also stated that Fulham’s wall is somewhat unique and rather unusual. The painting itself must have required a considerable amount of work and effort, and the colourful scheme is certainly reflective of a high status building. Unlike most wall paintings of this period there appear to be no elements of political content in the form of heraldic symbols or coats of arms. The creeping vertical foliage is curious and may well represent bamboo.

Although the paintwork appears at first glance to be in reasonable condition in places it is flaking off both the plaster and the timbers. All those years behind a lathe and plaster wall and then a plasterboard partition have taken their toll, leaving it very dirty. Some panels have slipped and a few chunks have fallen off. So how do you conserve a 16th century wall? Kirsten says the first thing they do is get the hoover out! If the paint and wall are fairly sound this isn’t a problem. Where it is more fragile, brushes are used. This gets the wall clean of dirt and then the real work begins.

Initially testing is undertaken in order to identify the correct materials to use. In the case of the paint on the plaster a glue named ‘Tylose’ is used. This is a cellulose based, water soluble and reversible glue which consolidates the paint by replacing the deteriorated binding. It is applied using unsized paper which is incredibly absorbent; rather like blotting paper.

Unfortunately Tylose can’t be used on the painted timbers though. Here the medium for consolidation employed is acrylic dispersion, a binder which is far more effective at securing the paintwork to the wood (where the paint has flaked more heavily).

In regards of the slipped panels, a grout adhesive specifically designed for lime and daub is injected into the side of the plaster and it is reattached to the timber. The grout takes a while to set and during this period the panel has to be clamped in place with blocks and, rather resourcefully on Greg’s part in this instance, a dinner knife!

Both Greg and Kirsten have certainly got to know the wall in quite intricate detail to the point where Kirsten is now seeing bamboo in her sleep! It has been fascinating to watch them at work in what is clearly a painstaking but, I would imagine, highly rewarding job.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, we had to move the radiator which gave Steve the site manager yet another heritage headache…