The Building Conservation Directory 2024

INTERIORS 5 139 CATHEDRAL COMMUNICATIONS THE BUILDING CONSERVATION DIRECTORY 2024 WALL and CEILING PAINTINGS Philosophical and practical conservation considerations POLLY WESTLAKE NEW HERITAGE projects form around the fundamental question of how to preserve and present any original historic fabric. In terms of painted decoration, the decision of whether to conserve and present wall paintings as found, to cover over, or to restore to their original appearance depends on various factors, including the condition of the artwork, its historical and cultural significance and the intended use of the space. As is very often the case in heritage conservation, almost every project has a different set of parameters, priorities and restrictions to consider. There is no definitive guide to follow when designing an approach. Rather, a complex list of (sometimes opposing) priorities and requirements must be taken into account, and a solution found that puts the long-term preservation and future potential of the painted decoration at the centre of decision-making while finding compromises that satisfy as many of the other factors as possible. Each approach comes with its own set of considerations, which will be discussed here with case studies from recent projects. A great number of factors influence the decision of which approach to take. In practice, there are four principal factors which may be summarised. Firstly, the intended use of the space within which the painting is situated; secondly, the condition of the painted scheme and its architectural environment; thirdly, the cultural and historical significance of the painted scheme and its environment; and lastly, the requirements/wishes of the owners and other stakeholders. Let’s look at these with the help of some case studies. PRESERVE AS FOUND COVER UP RESTORE PARTIALLY OR FULLY DETACH AND MOVE PHILOSOPHY This approach aims to preserve the wall paintings in their present condition to prevent further loss or deterioration of the original. Wall paintings are sometimes concealed under protective materials to shield them from environmental factors or potential damage, or to hide them for some reason. Restoration involves intervening to bring the artwork back to a previous (usually original) state. Detaching a paint scheme and moving it to a new location may be required due to serious damage or proposed demolition of the substrate. PRACTICAL AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS Authenticity: Preservation as found emphasises the importance of preserving the original materials and its patina. Aesthetic concerns: Suitable in architectural contexts where a damaged or illegible surface will be acceptable to the viewer. Practical concerns: As with any type of intervention, any material applied to the painting should be assessed to ensure compatibility with the original materials and with the environmental conditions of the space. Philosophical question: How much intervention is ethically justifiable and what ethical considerations should guide the decision-making process? Protection: Covering is usually considered a preventive measure to safeguard paintings from physical harm, pollution, or light exposure, but when covered, the scheme can be forgotten, and is therefore at some risk of accidental damage. Practical: Coverings should be reversible so future generations can reveal the original artwork. Documentation: It is essential to record the painted scheme using all appropriate methods – photography, photogrammetry, tracing, sampling – to ensure as much information as possible is available. Philosophical question: Can access be provided to the artwork while ensuring its longterm conservation? Aesthetic concerns: Restoration aims to restore the visual integrity of the artwork, addressing issues like damage or loss. Historical accuracy: Restoration may involve research to recreate missing elements based on historical and technical evidence. Philosophical question: Which is more important; preserving the original materials and techniques used by the artist, or ensuring the overall aesthetic and historical value of the artwork? Ethical and practical concerns: All methods of detachment risk damaging the artwork, and in some cases the risk is extremely high. Artistic integrity: Moving a wall painting will result in the loss of the artist’s original intent and the unique relationship between the artwork and its architectural context. Note: This approach is not commonly undertaken for historical painted schemes in the UK, and will not be discussed further here. A conservator cleaning ceiling panels at Christchurch College