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16 Aug 2022

Crathes painted ceilings project: an introduction

Written by Murray Hope
Wooden ceiling beams are covered in painted decorations of kings and queens, heraldic symbols and animal faces. They are mostly painted blue and shades of orange and brown.
Crathes Castle’s ceilings are among the most extensive and striking of their type in Scotland.
The painted ceiling decoration at Crathes Castle dates to the early 1600s and requires constant specialist care. This blog series will follow the conservation journey to offer insights and historical background as the project progresses.

Introducing the team

Lauren Jackson – Regional Conservator North (National Trust for Scotland)

Annie Robertson – Chartered Surveyor (National Trust for Scotland)

Karen Dundas – Accredited wall painting conservator

What are we doing?

The team will be working room-to-room in Crathes Castle until mid-October 2022, using specialist techniques to carefully investigate and painstakingly conserve the 400-year-old decoration.

You’ll be able to see our colleagues carrying out extensive remedial conservation to consolidate the sections of flaking paint and repair areas of loss. They’ll apply a weak gelatine solution (which acts as a temporary glue and glaze) to hold the delicate small fragments of paint in position, before securing with a stronger adhesive solution. Areas of loss will then be delicately retouched with a water-based paint, carefully matched to the original colour.

The team will also take small paint samples from the painted ceilings to be sent for sampling and laboratory analysis. We anticipate that we’ll learn much more from these findings: what pigments have been used, where these pigments were perhaps sourced, and when the paint may have been applied.

We may also uncover some secrets – the analysis will tell us if there are earlier layers beneath what we see today.

Why are we doing this work?

Due to fluctuating humidity and temperature, the seasonal movement of timbers and regular footfall through the castle, the paint on the ceilings gradually becomes loose from its substrate. Eventually, areas can detach, resulting in permanent loss.

A detail of a 17th-century painted illustration of a knight-like figure. The close-up shows his face and helmet, as well as the long blade of a sword resting on his shoulder.
Flaking paint and resulting loss are evident on this painted board detail.

Painted ceilings: the height of 16th- and 17th-century fashion and their fall from grace

Heavily influenced by the Renaissance, painted ceilings were popular from the 1540s to the 1640s. They featured common themes such as mythology, morality, symbolism and coats of arms.

On the original paintings, the ceiling was prepared with a layer of glue-water and then a coat of glue gesso (made up of glue, chalk and white pigment) as a sort of primer coat, before the painted decoration was applied. The master painter drew the patterns, with the apprentice colouring them in. It’s thought that the Crathes painter was a Scot, likely using a pattern book of European designs, possibly of German origin.

The ceilings were finished at the beginning of the 17th century, but unfortunately they quickly fell out of fashion and were often replaced by highly ornamental plasterwork in later houses. The ceilings at Crathes were also covered up, although luckily this was with lath and plaster, preserving much of the original paintings beneath.

Victorian ‘restoration’ and embellishment

“The words ‘Victorian restoration’ bring fear to any conservator’s mind ... and that’s true here, as the ceilings were heavily overpainted with thick layers, using colours which were not true to the original scheme.”
Annie Robertson
Chartered Surveyor

The Crathes ceilings were rediscovered in the 1870s during refurbishment works but unfortunately they were also ‘restored’ at this time. The original paintings had been created using distemper paint – an organic paint made from an animal glue (often rabbit skin), chalk and pigment (essentially a form of tempera but without the egg). We think that when they were uncovered, there was an attempt to clean the ceilings using water. Of course, this would have destroyed the organic paint, which is possibly why such extensive overpainting was required.

Victorian overpainting took place on many of the ceilings. Previous paintwork investigations at Crathes have revealed the original pigments were brown and red ochre (iron oxide), carbon black and lead white. The appearance would have been much softer and more muted than the vibrancy that we see today – extra colours would have been added by the Victorians.

A close-up photo of two ancient wooden ceiling beams, featuring faint painted decoration in shades of brown and orange.
The muted, softer tones of this original painted window beam contrast with the more vibrant Victorian restored sections.

The ARG projects

We are getting ready to begin a number of capital maintenance projects at our places across Scotland thanks to Annual Repair Grant funding from Historic Environment Scotland. This grant offers support to conservation-standard repair projects and will help our charity work towards some of our targets and deliver necessary investments set out in our ambitious 10-year-strategy – Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone – launched earlier this year.

With conservation, engagement and sustainability at the heart of our work, the funding will be allocated across multiple sites including Castle Fraser and Crathes Castle in the North East.

Preserving heritage across Scotland

The historic properties in the care of the National Trust for Scotland hold vast and varied collections, including over 300,000 precious artefacts that are displayed, as far as possible, in their original settings.

In order to ensure the long-term preservation of these collections and the historic interiors, both preventive conservation methods and remedial conservation work are applied to mitigate their deterioration.

To support our care for Scotland’s irreplaceable heritage and to enjoy free access to over 100 properties, join us today.

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