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Stripping back the secrets of the Palace

by Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist

As those of you who have visited the Palace recently may have noticed, our main drive, Tudor courtyard and great hall are currently closed to the public. The drive is being resurfaced, with new lighting installed along its length, whilst the courtyard is undergoing further repointing. In the great hall a substantial piece of redecoration is taking place. So what exactly is going on behind those closed doors which were only recently occupied by Father Christmas?

The hall has seen many changes over its lifespan since its construction in the late 15th century. Under the tenure of Bishop Sherlock in the mid-18th century the ceiling was substantially raised and the previous ceiling, perhaps embellished by Bishop Juxon, was dumped in the area to the west of the Palace. Then, in the early 19th century, the hall was altered once again by Bishop Howley. The chimney stack to the rear of the hall was removed, creating the passageway which now runs between the hall and Bishop Sherlock’s room. This was also when the original entrance in the north-western corner of the hall was blocked.

Finally, the panelling and wooden screen on the walls of the hall are actually a relatively recent addition. Much of this material was recycled from the Doctors’ Commons, a society of lawyers who practiced Civil Law in London. The society was dissolved in 1865 and the buildings on Queen Victoria Street in central London were sold off and subsequently demolished. It therefore seems likely that Bishop Tait acquired the panelling and screen at a most reasonable price!

So, how do you restore a building that has seen so many drastic changes?

We are reopening the entrance that was blocked by Bishop Howley in the early 19th century. This will create a thoroughfare for visitors from our new museum. At the same time we are redecorating the panelling – this has proved a very interesting exercise.

To begin with, I had absolutely no idea that the panels around the hall are not actually all the same. It seems that the panels on the eastern side were probably those recovered from the Doctors’ Commons. However, the remaining panels appear to have been built to fit the hall – you can see in the photograph below that these have a much narrower gap between them. Over the years, damage and various layers of paint and varnish have left the timber in a poor state. Whereas the screen passage is made of oak, the panels are pine and have been stained to make them appear like the much more expensive hardwood.

The team currently restoring the panels consists of Kevin, Robert and Lee, and I have learned from them how they repair historic woodwork. To begin with the panels are sanded back. This removes bumps and takes knots out whilst also providing a keyed (slightly rough) surface which the new paint can adhere to. This process revealed that the panels had previously been stained a dark brown colour and had been finished with a grain paint. This was most apparent on the door, where a number of different paint layers have been revealed.

Following the sanding a shellac primer is used as a sealant. This prevents the bleeding of stains from previous paintwork emerging through the new finish. It also produces a key to start the new surface. Once the shellac has set, an oil based eggshell base colour is added. This is currently being applied and is a startling orange colour. Kevin explains that elements of bright colours can also be seen within the oak passage. This is then covered by a pre-tinted oil based scumble glaze which Kevin and his team will prepare; the glaze is transparent, which allows the base coat to emerge. Combs are then used to create the grain effect and an oil based varnish is finally used to protect the surface. So our panels are going to look a lot less tired than they did before the works started!

The paintwork doesn’t stop there however, restoration is also being undertaken in the entrance to the main Palace building. Here the decorative elements inside the entrance are being stripped back and more of their detail is emerging. The coat of arms has been particularly astonishing as a much earlier red paint and gold leaf effect has been revealed on Bishop Howley’s heraldic shield. It was also fantastic to see that the ceiling in this area was once decorated with a fake stone block effect, a style which was apparently rather popular in the Regency Period.