Crafts and Trades News

The New – Very New – Battlements For The North Wing

When the Abbey facades were gothicised two hundred years ago it was not done awfully well, at least in terms of the quality of the work, and the current restoration is intended to be more durable. That’s why the battlements at the Abbey are being replaced in – whisper it – glass fibre.

Innovative Composites in Sussex were given the job of making a hundred and twenty new pieces (plus a few spares, just in case) to replace the original stone crenellation. They made left and right moulds of a cleaned-up early-Nineteenth century original, plus a number of finials.

The notion of glass fibre battlements might sound like heresy, but in fact it makes very good sense – and is indicative of a major turning point in the thinking of English Heritage. Previously, with regard to Listen buildings, English Heritage has insisted – understandably, many would say – that during restoration work materials must be replaced like-for-like. Thus, as the battlements at the Abbey were originally made of stone, the replacements must be too.

2015-03-02 14.51.44

A first template goes into place, creating a line which the crenellation will follow

2015-05-14 15.18.41

2015-05-14 15.19.44

2015-05-14 15.18.16

2015-05-14 15.18.16

The hollow forms are completed in wood (four photos above) . . .

2015-03-02 14.51.25

The GRP mouldings fit over the wooden formers; this is – as you can see – a right hand piece

2015-03-02 14.51.15

It will be an easy and quick job to secure the battlements in place

Making the point for this approach, the architectural conservator Douglas Kent has written, “To William Morris and the other founders of the SPAB [Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings], the value of an old building lay in its physical fabric. To them, an old building was more than simply the sum of its constituent parts. It had the ability to excite memory and anticipation, serving as a physical manifestation of the past and a potential source of influence on the future. The sheer antiquity of the building, the accumulated evidence of how it had changed over time and the patina of age and weathering of its surfaces were considered to be of the utmost importance. Surviving fabric was finite and, once destroyed, could never be retrieved.

“While, therefore, a whole variety of values needs to be taken into consideration, and some subjective judgements must be made when planning work to a building, it is the value of the fabric that should remain of primary significance. The retention of genuine historic fabric and the avoidance of misleading restoration will allow present and future generations to interpret the significance for themselves in their own way and on the basis of physical evidence.”

There were always subtle problems with the like-for-like philosophy though; some of the gothick details on the house which appeared to be stone never in fact were. Elements such as the ‘stone’ finials were in fact cheaply made in wood, and never had a good chance of passing the tests of time and the weather. Similarly, the exterior facing of the Abbey, which looked like stone, was far from it; it was a tiny wash of ashlar over a poor lath-and-plaster base. It was inscribed geometrically to make it look like stone blocks – and those incisions were in fact the best workmanship on the facades. It would have been ludicrous (and impossibly expensive) to have insisted that all the exterior walls been faced with new stone just because they looked as if they had been for two centuries.

It may also be that past builders simply got it wrong. The ashlar façade of the Abbey is not weight-supporting; all the structural weight is borne by the Tudor timber frame. Over the decades and centuries this has buckled, as one would expect, but the extra weight on its roof-line created by stone battlements and other details would simply have been too great a weight for the Sixteenth century timber-work. It could be argued that extra supports, intrusive and very certainly inappropriate would have been required. It is certainly true that less weight on the timber structure is a good thing.

2015-05-14 15.11.28

Stone or GRP?

The other important factor is the development of new materials and techniques. If the early-Nineteenth century builders had been able to make the battlements and other details in glass fibre then they most certainly would have done so. There was never any suggestion of them having a military and defensive role; having to withstand cannon fire and shelter musketeers!

2015-05-14 15.19.12

A GRP finial ready to go into place on the roof-line. In stone this would need several man to life it; in GRP you can put it under your arm and walk round with it

The fact that suppliers can make, colour and texture materials such as glass fibre as exactly as they can is an argument in itself. Even from close up (and they are about fifty feet off the ground) the glass fibre work on the Abbey will be indistinguishable from the original stone. It is now possible to restore even Grade I Listed buildings such as Combermere Abbey without the insistence on like-for-like materials, and without comprising either the authenticity or integrity of the structure and its setting.

Innovative Composites can boast of more than thirty years of experience in handling a massive range of such work; this might be the first time that they have re-created battlements (their nearest work to dare is probably new components for York Minster, the Tower of London, and Brighton Pier), but their range to date includes a lot of architectural work, as well as marine, automotive and furnishing commissions. They offer a complete consultancy service, initiating projects from scratch. Many items they manufacture are on-offs; in other cases they may create thousands.

Every aspect of their design and build process is in-house at their factory in Newhaven, between Brighton and Eastbourne on the Sussex coast. From on-screen design and design documentation all concepts can be visualised in 3-D. This is then followed by material selection, and a full costing, before the actual manufacturing of the components. Not exactly how the masons worked at Combermere two hundred years ago.

Glass Fibre – now known correctly as GRP, for Glass Reinforced Plastic – was developed by the War Ministry during the Second World War. It was light, strong, easily and cheaply moulded, and very durable, and it soon found a role in many industries. Designers loved it; it gave them the ability to make complex curves without ant loss or strength, and objects could be turned out singly or in huge numbers. Throughout the Sixties in particular it was very much seen as the material of the future, and on television it graced many editions of ‘Tomorrows’ World’.

A composite is a general term applied to reinforced plastics, but in the case of GRP it is glass fibres reinforcing a plastic layer, hence GRP (glass reinforced plastics). Different types of fibre can be used such as carbon and Aramid but the most common applications employ the use of glass fibre. The plastic is thermosetting, most often polyester or vinylester, but other plastics like epoxy are also used. Fibreglass can be applied to a multitude of uses due to its unique properties and is both stiff and strong in tension and compression.

2015-05-14 15.18.51

New GRP battlement cappings from Innovative Composites waiting to be unwrapped and put in place

One great advantage of fibreglass is that although it can be painted any colour, it can also be ‘self-coloured’, which means that the colour is introduced into the resin mix before the moulding is filled. Thus the colour goes all the way through the item in question, so if it is scratched the scratch doesn’t show because the colour does not change. The colour for the Abbey’s crenellation was “dirtied up a bit” to be a good match with the surrounding stone-work. GRP can be given any finish or texture to resemble almost any other material. The GRP can also be treated to almost completely avoid weathering or any other degradation.

The New Crockets Built by Mike Merrill

Mike Merrall of Innovative Composites with the crenellation toppings and finials for the Abbey’s roofline

The materials used at the Abbey over the last nine hundred years have included stone, wood, brick and ironwork – and now we can add Glass Reinforced Plastic to that list.

Combermere north wing archive 001

The original crenellation on the north wing (with the Wellington wing, now demolished, to the right of the photo – as seen in an Edwardian postcode

Harriet Owen Hughes – Our Meticulous Paintings Conservator

Of all the crafts which have been involved in the restoration of the Abbey, perhaps the most intricate has been the work of paintings conservation. This has been undertaken by Harriet Owen Hughes at The Conservation Centre in Liverpool, which is part of the National Museums Liverpool.

Harriet first worked on a painting from Combermere several years ago, and conserved the four Tudor portraits from the fire surround in The Library six years ago. Of these portraits she says that she found the royal portraits to be “set pieces”, that is to say replicas of existing images of Henry and Elizabeth. Both monarchs were keen that their image should be seen throughout the land and many copies were made of portraits for which they had actually sat. On the other and the portrait of Richard Cotton’s son and heir, George, was far more interesting, “He looked much more like a real person. The others had been messed about with; that one is the most genuine”, she says. You can read more about these portraits by clicking here. The fire surround portraits were conserved with the help of a grant from the Heritage Conservation Trust.

The painting of Elizabeth had been ‘updated’ at least once, it seemed, possibly once in the reign of Queen Anne, to make the Tudor monarch look more contemporary; indeed, possibly to make her look like Queen Anne. There was “something else” under Elizabeth I’s ruff, Harriet thought, but it did not show up in x-rays, and it was probably a completely different ruff (and a different dead dress). It would have been wrong to take the restoration any further back. “I would have liked to have got the dendrochronology man in and have dated the wood on which the portraits were painted, but in fact we couldn’t, which was a shame – so we can’t be entirely sure that they were contemporaneous with the re-building of the house”.

The most recent project which Harriet has undertaken for the Abbey was the large bird’s-eye view of the estate by Tillemans, painted in 1730, and the larger and later portraits from the Library. The Tillemans painting was worked on in Harriet’s studio from October 2014 until that Christmas. You can see more about the Tillemans and its restoration by clicking here.

One portrait, an almost-full-size painting of a mid-Seventeenth century gentleman in armour, was found to have been extended downwards at some point. The legs were not there originally, and a panel had been attached for their creation, but what was really surprising was that, under the latter paint, there had been a much earlier and rather good painting of some flowers. This panel had been attached upside down. A decision was made to conserve the flowers around his armoured legs so that he now stands in an herbaceous border, which is rather curious but does give us the best of both worlds.

That portrait, and one of a continental – possibly Dutch or German – lady were in poor repair, and Harriet thinks that they might previously have been heavily restored after a fire, or some similar major catastrophe.

One problem encountered on a number of the Combermere paintings, and apparently a very common one, was that they had been over-cleaned in the past – often on more than one occasion – and then there was too much over-painting, creating headaches for later conservators; “Any re-touching I have done is made up of a mixture of pigments and varnish, so in the future it can be taken off as easily as taking off varnish. We are very particular about varnish; we make our own from resin. It doesn’t go yellow and it is reversible.”

Harriet began her career by studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute, (where her tutors included Sir Anthony Blunt, who was later exposed as a Soviet spy, and was stripped of his knighthood) and then took a two-year course in conservation in the same building. She moved to Liverpool when she married and worked at the Walker Art Gallery, before setting up her own conservation studio in the Bluecoat Chambers in the city.

The facilities in her current studio at the Conservation Centre, where she has now been for fifteen years, are world class, she says. The Centre was opened by Prince Charles some twenty years ago, but in recent years it has been hard hit by cuts in funding.

We are very grateful to Harriet for her superb work in giving new life to all the Abbey paintings she has worked on.

You can read more about the portraits in The Library and the restoration story by clicking here.

The Man On The Carpet

Had you been walking through Combermere Abbey recently you might have been startled to see a gentleman of a certain age laying on the floor on his side, with his head resting on the carpet. You would have been forgiven for thinking that the poor chap had suffered a seizure of some kind, but closer examination would have revealed the unlikely truth that in fact he was peering at the wainscoting. His name is Icaro Kosak and he has been responsible for specialist paint detailing at the Abbey, and decorative paint techniques.

2014-12-03 15.47.09

“It’s the vacuum cleaners”, he said, “No matter how careful the cleaners are their vacuum cleaners still take chunks out of the paint”. So there he was, with a fine brush and a carefully-mixed colour, re-touching work that he first created quite some time ago. Many years ago he created a wood grain on the wainscoting, and now repairs were needed.

As we have reported elsewhere, the larger armorial shields on the coving in The Library were fitted on a ground which had a grained effect. This was disturbed in places by Hare & Humphreys excellent restoration work, and now Icaro had been called in to make good – and to tour the Abbey doing any repairs to his work which were needed.

He applied a ‘ground’ colour to the background coving, which is plasterboard, and then created an artificial wood-grained effect as a top coat. There had been some staining in the base material, but Icaro’s work evened that out and a single, uninterrupted effect was achieved. His medium is an oil-based artists’ oil paint.

Two decades ago Icaro created the individual decoration in the Abbey’s self-catering cottages, and also worked in the Abbey itself – on the hall, the staircase, and any number of other rooms which cried out for paint detail. He describes his work as ‘specialist decorations’, which ranges from marbling to trompe l’oeil murals.

Born in Rome but now living in south London, Icaro drew and painted from an early age, and has specialised in interior design and paintwork for more than three decades. He has worked in commercial and retail properties as well as in homes both large and small, and both ancient and modern.

He was full of praise for the recent restoration of The Library ceiling; “It’s beautiful, quite beautiful. It doesn’t look restored, doesn’t look new, which is very difficult to achieve. I’m very glad to see it.”

He was only at the Abbey for three days on this visit; “I go very fast when I get going”, he says. He went on, “I love this house. Wherever you look you see a different century – there’s always something else to see. I was first here in 1990, and I have seen a lot of changes, all for the better. It’s unbelievable how much work and effort has gone into the restoration here. Very impressive.”

2014-12-03 15.32.16

Icaro’s temporary work bench, with the tools of his trade

Hare & Humphreys: Conservators To The Queen – And Combermere Abbey

The restoration of the ceiling in The Library at Combermere Abbey was undertaken by Hare & Humphreys, a Royal Warrant-holding company based in London. Founded in 1987, the firm has a hugely distinguished list of clients. Peter Hare, was born in Scotland, but when he was young his newly-widowed mother moved to rural Norfolk, which is where he was raised. In contrast, Paul Humphreys was brought up in suburban east London. Peter’s early interest was interior decoration, while Paul worked for a company which specialised in cleaning and restoring historic churches.

They first met in 1978 when they were recruited to work on the re-instatement of The William Morris room at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inspired by Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, they realised that they both had “the most extraordinary desire and drive to revive the seemingly lost respect for decorators, conservators and artists alike, by creating a modern 20th century company with the spirit, ideals and commitment shown a century earlier”.

Peter Hare formed his first company in 1981 and Paul worked alongside him on many commissions. This work took them to many corners of the world, and their clients were interior designers, billionaires (mega-yachts were part of their portfolio), kings, sultans, and rock stars. In the UK they undertook conservation in the National Gallery, the Palace of Westminster, and both Houses of Parliament.

The new company of Hare & Humphreys was created around the restoration and re-decorating of the Spencer family’s original London home, Spencer House in Saint James’s – built between 1756 and 1766, and one of the most extravagant aristocratic town houses in London. It was commissioned by the first Earl Spencer – a direct ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Spencer-House-1-The-Painted-Room_1-918x418A detail of a ceiling at Spencer House, conserved by Hare & Humphreys

Five years later they were called to Windsor in the wake of the catastrophic fire at Windsor Castle. Their first task was to assess the extent of the damage and create a plan for the re-building and restoration. The firm’s work on – in particular – the Crimson Drawing room, the Green Dining room, St George’s Hall, and the State Dining Room was acknowledged as being world-class, and resulted in Her Majesty the Queen awarded the company her Royal Warrant.

warrant-450x325Hare & Humphreys’ Royal Warrant for their work on Windsor Castle

Since then the firm has worked on many of the most important and prestigious conservation projects imaginable, including Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, Dover Castle, the Royal Academy’s base at Burlington House in Piccadilly, the Monument to The Great Fire of London, and The Howard Theatre at Downing College in Cambridge University. Their work covers every style and age of building, be it private, academic, public, or ecclesiastical. The firm’s range of work runs from consultancy and design, right through to undertaking every aspect of conservation, no matter the number of disciplines involved. As well as the structure of a building and any form of decorative surface, Hare & Humphreys will restore furniture and internal fittings.

St-Pauls-2-918x418Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London

As Hare and Humphreys say, “We believe that the care of historic interiors is a specialised discipline, requiring detailed knowledge of all the elements of the interior, as well as the materials and the techniques involved in making and restoring them.  The scheme to be conserved could comprise many different materials, such as paint, timber, stone, plaster, gilding, and upholstery. It also involves a multitude of specialist trades including decorating, fine art, french polishing, joinery, fibrous plastering, and many others”.

In 2012 the firm completed one of their most exciting and original commissions. A new Royal barge – the first built for 250 years – was built for Queen Elizabeth II’s sixtieth jubilee celebrations, and Hare & Humphreys was asked to paint and gild the vessel.

Gloriana was to be at the very centre of the flotilla of the Thames Pageant, carrying the Royal Family. Detailed consultation with the Royal Household and the College of Arms was needed to ensure that protocol was not breached in any particular. The decoration was designed to reflect the tradition of historic Royal barges, whilst also incorporating references to the Queen’s six decades as monarch. Tributes were added in recognition of the long marriage to, and great support from His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh. These took the form of the emblems of the Lord High Admiral which can be seen painted either side of the rear cabin entrance.

gloria-918x418-918x418 gloriana3-918x418


The external gilding on Gloriana used fifteen hundred books of 23.5 carat gold leaf. A trompe l’oeil panelled ceiling of the Royal cabin was inspired by the birds which can be seen on the Thames, from the river’s source to the estuary – the crests of all the Thames-side boroughs were represented within this scheme. The design also included images showing other royal barges from centuries gone by, and as if it wasn’t enough to have painted the barge itself, Hare & Humphreys’ craftsmen hand–painted the boat’s eighteen oars and the large rear rudder with depictions of legendary sea serpents.

So far as the work needed on The Library at Combermere Abbey was concerned, Helen Hughes, the specialist conservator who had conducted a detailed survey of The Library, suggested three firms to the Abbey’s owner, Sarah Callander Beckett. They were invited to visit the Abbey and tender for the work accordingly. Two of those companies submitted similar prices, but Sarah was very impressed by Hare & Humphreys’ approach and in particular by the firm’s staff.

The head of their team was Cathy Littlejohn, H&H’s Conservation & Projects Director, and Sarah says that she was not only impressed by her obvious knowledge, but also by her enthusiasm to undertake the conservation work at the Abbey. As Sarah says, “Quite apart from the team’s abilities, I was going to be having all these people more or less living in my family house for a few months, so it was a great help that I liked them”.

Cathy’s first visit was in September 2013, and it was agreed that work should begin in early March 2014. The conservators who were on site full time were to be accommodated during the working week in some of the Abbey’s self-catering holiday cottages.

Cathy Littlejohn says that right from the beginning she realised that it would be a very interesting project. “I could see the quality of the ceiling immediately on my first visit – and its faded glory. I went up into the roof space above the ceiling and was amazed by the history encapsulated in just that relatively small area. I also remember it being cold and overcast, and, to be honest, the room was rather forbidding. You do find though that once you get underway on a job you warm to any room, as it reveals its secrets to you.

“I was very confident that we could do The Library justice, and I also knew that it would be a very satisfying job to undertake. No job is ever routine for us. There are always things which we don’t expect. We were removing years of dirt, just caused by the passing of time, and it was a wonderful transformation. I find that you look back at the first photographs you took, after a few weeks, and have forgotten just what a difference you have made.

“At the Abbey we encountered no major problems, just difficulties which had to be addressed along the way. One of our biggest problems had nothing to do with the ceiling at all; we had a bad batch of paint stripper sent to us, which was too runny to use. That aside, we had to address the black mould we found, and some of the surfaces weren’t what he had expected. The small triangular panels of painted decoration turned out to be on either canvas or paper, and they needed treating differently. We had expected to clean the dais but up close we saw that the darkening wasn’t actually dirt but an antiquing effect which had been applied!

REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image140 REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image141

Two of the triangular motifs; on the bench being cleaned and restored, and re-instated

“Within The Library we were faced with many different surfaces – the painted crests, the wooden shields, paper and canvas as well as plaster – and they all needed different approaches so far as their conservation was concerned.

“Each of the decorated panels was unique. There was no standardisation, so we couldn’t use a template, and each one had to be treated individually. Like so many old buildings The Library is incredibly idiosyncratic.  For example, the rising and falling profile of the cornice is wonderful. You could only really see that fully when you got up on scaffolding and looked along it.”

REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image134 REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image133

One of the heraldic shields before and after conservation

Something which the Abbey staff realised and appreciated about Hare & Humphreys’ team was the knowledge and experience at all levels. The firm puts their operating teams together very carefully, making sure that within each team they have the expertise in total to tackle any eventuality. Some of the firm’s staff have specialist university training, but others come up through the trade and then move into heritage restoration and gain experience on the job. Cathy says, “We are very positive about both routes, and working on castles, palaces and many of the greatest and most historic buildings in the country means they have enormous practical experience. The crafts people learn from the graduates and vice versa.”

It’s also true to say that the team really enjoyed working at Combermere. Their enthusiasm for the job, and the pleasure they derived from it, were manifest – but they also enjoyed staying in the Abbey cottages – and dining nightly up the lane at The Combermere Arms.

The conservation work was undoubtedly timely; as Cathy says, “The flaking of the paint would have continued, and in fact probably accelerated, so that if the job had been postponed for, say, five years there would have been far less to work with. Also the plasterwork was decaying worryingly. We had to pin back quite a lot of plaster on both the panelling and the beams. Some of the smaller motifs on the cornicing had fallen away, and that would have continued – and further loos of those would have been a real shame. Thinking ahead by five years again, you would certainly have seen a real deterioration. It’s a very good thing that the problems were addressed when they were.”

REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image122  REVISED Combermere Abbey Report(1)_page64_image123

The coving on the north wall of The Library, with painted shields, before and after conservation by Hare & Humphreys