the Magic to Law's Close, Kirkcaldy
To King James
VI, Fife was like a 'beggar's mantle fringed with gold': an unproductive
land mass bordered by vital coastal burghs along the Firth of
Forth. In the late 16th century these small towns and ports were
bustling with maritime trade and lucrative industries such as
fishing, coal and salt production. Architecturally, one of the
highlights of this economic prosperity was the establishment of
a class of mercantile house of which Law's Close is probably the
finest surviving urban example outside Edinburgh.
1590 by the Law family of ship-owner/merchants, Law's Close occupies
a once strategically important site at the east end of Kirkcaldy
High Street opposite the entrance to the harbour, in an area known
as Port Brae. For two centuries after its erection the house was
owned by powerful local families, including the Coalziers and
Boswells, who held sway in the burgh council. However, by the
end of the 18th century the house was in decline. The
19th century saw industrialisation push the middle classes further
out. The property's fortunes floundered and it was subdivided
to provide working-class accommodation with bakery premises below.
The townscape was further blighted during the 1930s and 1960s
by failed regeneration schemes so that by the mid-1980s the building
had been abandoned and was left empty and vulnerable.
little was then known about the history of the building, its significance
was indicated by its general architectural form, its unusually
wide burgage plot, and by the survival of late 17th century decorative
plaster ceilings and some panelling. As a direct response to its
plight the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT) was founded
in 1985. Its first project was to acquire and restore this remarkable
late 16th century town house, prosaically identified as 'Nos 339-343
High Street, Kirkcaldy'.
|Restored 17th century panelling on the first floor
Repair and restoration was directed by
Simpson & Brown Architects who assembled a team of specialists
to undertake the complex issues involved in understanding and
preserving as much historic fabric as possible. Stabilisation
of the building was a priority, so phase one was concerned with
structural repairs as well as the accumulation of specialist analyses
from archaeology to paint investigation.
After so many years of
neglect, no one was quite prepared for the regular surprises Law's
Close continued to reveal throughout the duration of the project.
This is particularly true of its interior decoration which, apart
from the intact room at the east end of the first floor, was largely
obscured by centuries of overlay.
Archaeological evidence suggests
that around 1590 a medieval predecessor was enlarged and recast
with a new three-storey ashlar facade. Evidence for the original
appearance of the front of the ground storey is more sketchy,
but this was possibly at least partly arcaded and may have been
used for storage, services or commerce. The intriguing survival
of traces of the Kirkcaldy burgh arms painted large in black distemper
on original wall plaster in a recess on the east wall suggests
When the removal of cement render from the facade
exposed the original fenestration pattern, two blocked up window
openings were discovered. These had provided light to a stone
turnpike stair within the body of the house, just off-centre.
The stairway had been removed in the early 19th century when the
property was subdivided and a new stairwell tower added at the
rear of the property.
There are two distinct phases of decoration:
the first of c1590, and a second dates from the refitting of the
interiors c1680. In the late 16th century configuration, the plan
of the house contained three principal rooms at first floor level
consisting of a central hall with large fireplace flanked by two
chambers. A similar arrangement applied above. This pattern was
established following the discovery of three different patterns
of polychrome decoration on the board and beam ceilings to the
first floor rooms, hidden behind 17th century plaster ceilings.
These tempera paintings, which had been applied directly on to
the joists and floorboards of the rooms above, were analysed and
photographed in 1990 by Historic Scotland Conservation Centre
(HSCC) as part of a wider investigation of the interiors.
east room the decoration consisted largely of a geometric pattern
on the boards, and floral motifs set out in rectangular panels
on the supporting joists.
The ceiling of the central room has
a familiar pattern-type of fruit and flowers with beams painted
in abstracted foliate devices. This area was partly exposed following
removal of a badly damaged plain plaster ceiling revealing charring
of the original boards and beams, and is the only expanse to be
left on view after cleaning, consolidation and discrete matching
in new areas by Sally Cheyne and Owen Davidson of The Conservation
In the west-most room the pattern changes again
to a scrolling arabesque form in green and pinkish-red on a white
ground, with the joists painted similarly to those in the central
compartment. The principal beam (visible along with a return moulding
of a stone chimneypiece in a later cupboard on the west side)
is painted in black and red arabesques within rectangular bordered
panels. All of this
is fairly typical of the type of decoration found in properties
of a similar class and period throughout eastern Scotland.
|Late 16th century polychrome ceiling decoration in tempera on the first floor ceiling (Photo: Simpson and Brown Architects)
||Detail of the decoration before ceaning and conservation (Photo: Simpson and Brown Architects)
however, is the discovery at second floor level of a large wall
painting in tempera on plaster depicting a late 16th sailing century
ship hove-to, with cannon firing below a (damaged) lion rampant
figurehead. This wall painting was uncovered accidentally as a
consequence of the cutting of a channel in the wall plaster in
anticipation of finding a suspected built-up opening. Mercifully,
the area of loss missed the hull of the ship, and has been skilfully
reconstructed in water-colour, again by Sally Cheyne and Owen
It has been postulated that the vessel is of royal status
and may represent the ship in which Anne of Denmark paraded the
Forth Ports in 1590 following her marriage to James VI. Certainly
that union was welcomed by the Scottish mercantile community as
it promised expansion of the Baltic trade through Danish-controlled
a merchant ship owner William Law might well have wished to celebrate
Other tantalising glimpses of similar wall paintings
behind the 17th century panelling suggests that much of the 16th
century house was profusely decorated.
|New tortoiseshell graining and geometric panel decoration in the west room of the second floor accurately
reproduces the late 17th century scheme found on the existing panelling (Photo: Tim Hurst)
About the 1670s or 1680s,
changing fashions and perhaps a change of ownership led to an
extensive refitting of the interior with timber panelling, moulded
cornices and ornate plaster ceilings, and the introduction of
sash windows. This necessitated raising the wallhead of the frontage
slightly to accommodate additional and enlarged window openings.
Overall the tripartite principal room divisions persisted, though
on different lines. On the first floor the east room was provided
with conventional enough pine panelling, a bolection-profile timber
chimneypiece, and a moulded plaster ceiling divided into two compartments
by the earlier underlying longitudinal principal beam. The ceiling
incorporates devices taken from old moulds in circulation since
James VI's last visit to Scotland in 1617.
undertaken by HSCC in 1990 in the panel over the chimneypiece
revealed that the panelling had originally been grained to represent
walnut and picked out in geometric lines, but had been over-painted
with successive coatings of plain colours and, latterly, a heavily
varnished wood graining scheme in imitation of oak. The earliest
plain treatment of blue in dead-flat oil paint has been reinstated.
In the north west corner an area devoid of panelling, but with
coeval framing denoted the position for a bed, the traces of fibres
and pinholes revealing it had originally been lined with stretched
fabric, while fragments of crimson flock paper denoted a mid-18th
The central room on this level posed something
of a dilemma. The exposed 16th century painted ceiling and large
fireplace were at odds with the late 17th century framing which
had lost its panels and mouldings when covered with hardboard
in the 20th century. The HSCC investigation uncovered the original
late 17th century stiles and rails of greenishblack marbling with
white veins, while the surviving fixed panels of the window reveals
had figured graining contained within a narrow painted border
in yellow. Presumably the missing wall panels were similarly treated
but, while the original profiles were reinstated, the room was
painted a neutral grey with the paint 'scrapes' left on display.
|New panel decoration in the west room of the second floor (Photo: Tim Hurst)
west-most room retained its framing but had also lost its panels,
panel mouldings and chair rail, but the profiles were recovered
from ghost evidence contained in the paint layers. The north wall
of this room was treated differently with wide vertical timber
lining boards. Trial removal of overpaint and paper revealed original
trompe l'oeil panelling grained in an aqueous medium: contorted
swirls of ochre with bright blue marbling represented the framing,
and pale grey and re-veined borders were used to simulate the
mouldings. At some point a secondary dark greenish-black marbling
with white veins was superimposed on the earlier blue scheme.
Again, missing timber profiles including those for the door frame
and chimneypiece were recovered from the physical evidence of
paint margins. An area of exposed decoration was left on the north
wall (illustrated above) and the rest of the room reinstated to
match by Mike Prior and Mark Nevin in 2005.
A very late discovery
in March 2005 changed the complexion of the second floor rooms.
Following removal of a confusion of 19th century partitions, the
surviving late 17th century pine panelling formed a three-bay
open plan arrangement, communicating along the north side. The
initial intention was to paint the panelling to accord with early
plain colours based on the report by HSCC in 1990, and its update
of 2002. The decorator was therefore instructed to strip the panelling
of heavy accumulations of paint and paper. Contrary to policy,
the operatives used hot air guns in preference to chemical stripping
with the result that extraordinary schemes of decoration were
uncovered - albeit in a compromised condition. Chemical stripping
would have certainly destroyed them without trace. The east room
compartment bore traces of highly figured walnut graining, apparently
executed directly on to ungrounded (although probably glue-sized)
timber; natural pine knots being incorporated into the design.
Mouldings were ebonised.
compartment was similarly treated, with the added dimension of
trompe l'oeil deeply fielded panels. These were profusely and
intricately over-grained in a broad interpretation of burr walnut,
with ebonised timber mouldings veined with scarlet.
|Reproducing the late 17th century graining scheme in the west room of the first floor: top left, painting the ground for the graining scheme (Photo: Jonathan Taylor); bottom left, the
boarded north wall with its trompe l’oeil paneling (Photo: Simpson and Brown Architects); and right, the room seen from the plainly decorated middle room (Photo: Tim Hurst)
original decorative treatment of the west room panelling proved
revelatory. Here the stripping away of over-paint had revealed
evidence of a trompe l'oeil scheme of tortoiseshell which, for
the 17th century, was exceptionally elaborate and must reflect
the status of the owner at this time.
Bristow (1), records faux tortoiseshell
in the columns of Wren's altarpiece at Whitehall Palace in 1676
and at Tredegar House in 1688 in combination with grey marbling.
Also in 1688 Stalker and Parker comment: 'House-Painters have of
late frequently endeavoured it, for Battens, and Mouldings of
Rooms; but I must of necessity say, with such ill success that I have
not to the best of my remembrance met with any that have humour'd
the Shell so far, as to make it look either natural, or delightful'.
The author of this article was asked to examine and record these
interiors with a view to reinstating the west room. Meticulous
scale drawings were made at 1:10 delineating every visible brush
mark to produce a readily readable document of the decoration.
It was felt that the original vestiges were too important to compromise,
so that after recording, the panels fields were covered with thin
ply to allow reinstatement of the design which recalls furniture
inlay designs of the period. The surviving faux tortoiseshell
was cleaned and in-painted with distemper to repair damage while
new work sought to reproduce the original combination of graining
and painted geometry.
On 30 September 2005, the Rt Hon Gordon
Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer (in whose constituency Kirkcaldy
falls) presided at the opening of Law's Close, marking the completion
of a remarkable conservation project that had begun two decades
(1) Ian C Bristow, Interior House-Painting Colours
and Technology 1615-1840, Yale University Press, London, 1996, p139
This article is reproduced from The
Building Conservation Directory, 2006
WILLIAM KAY is an architectural
historian, painter and conservator-restorer living in Fife.
He trained as a painter at the Glasgow School of Art and as
a restorer at Glasgow Museums and Galleries. As a historian
he is an authority on William Adam, the 'universal architect
of Scotland' in the early Georgian period and the father of
the Adam brothers.
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