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5 Oct 2022

Crathes painted ceilings project: delicate work progressing

Written by Murray Hope
A close-up image detailing the medieval painting of a knight's torso, wearing armour and holding a sword across his body.
A detail of a knight painted onto a wooden ceiling panel at Crathes Castle | Image courtesy of Karen Dundas
We take a look at what we have learned so far through the conservation of the painted ceilings in the Stair Chamber and the Room of the Nine Nobles at Crathes Castle.

Our earlier article explored the techniques involved in the original 16th- and 17th-century ceiling decoration, as well as various well-intended ‘conservation’ works since the Victorian era.

This update now examines the two rooms completed so far by Karen Dundas and her expert paint conservation team.

The Stair Chamber

Karen and her colleagues began the conservation project in the smallest of the four rooms. Working at height and in tight confines was a challenge in itself – but they maintained access throughout and enjoyed speaking with visitors. Often, remedial specialist conservation cannot take place in front of the public as it is sent to the conservators’ studio, due to not having suitable facilities on site to complete the works. (Of course, preventive conservation occurs daily via the Collections Care staff at each place.) In other cases, where collections are part of the heritage building, we have to complete the work in situ, but due to chemicals being used and access through rooms, we can’t complete this work in front of the public. However, in this instance the property set-up and the materials Karen has used mean that we’ve been lucky enough to complete the work during the summer, allowing visitors to see this work.

“Everyone has been unbelievably engaged and interested. It’s been fantastic to educate visitors in what we’re doing and why it’s important, but it’s also sparked some great conversations, thoughts and stories about the decoration itself.”
Karen Dundas
Accredited wall painting conservator

The Stair Chamber was once known as the White Bathroom in Crathes Castle. It is a small, white-painted room, accessed by a narrow stairway between two floors. The timber ceiling beams are illustrated with biblical text, and small patches of the original frieze remain. Unlike the rest of the castle, the beam decoration here was saved from the enthusiastic Victorian paintbrush, as it was protected by lathe and plaster until it was uncovered and conserved in the 1980s.

‘Why did they paint their ceilings so boldly?’ is one of the most common questions asked of Karen and our guides. Although there are many studies on this, and much debate around the vibrancy of the pigments, Karen says that we should try to imagine how the castle would originally have looked and felt – without the bright contrasting white walls – and with only candlelight illuminating the gloom in long dark winters. Décor on the ceilings and upper walls would have accompanied practical and attractive wall-hanging tapestries, which would have conveyed the owners’ values to their guests. The original owners wished to convey the impression that they were both morally and intellectually superior to the ‘masses’ in their choice of particular biblical and mythical texts.

We have used consolidation techniques that preserve and bring out the features of the original decoration. In the Stair Chamber, delicate blues are now visibly bolder and the yellows more vibrant. Karen also points out the crisper detail and shades on the frieze, hinting at how the Victorian overpaint flattened the three-dimensional qualities of the original.

Due to technical analysis carried out, the team are also delighted to have potentially located certain pigments previously hinted at in a 1959 analysis.

The Room of the Nine Nobles

If the Stair Chamber whispers of the past, the Room of the Nine Nobles offers no such subtlety. Bold and vibrant, the medieval figures in here were a contemporary motif across western Europe, most commonly featuring Classical, Old Testament and Christian heroes.

On this ceiling, figures include King David and Julius Caesar, all dressed for war, amid attributed shields of heraldic arms (awarded retrospectively). The text on the beams introduces the nobles and expresses their deeds in verse, offering clear lessons for the viewer.

Karen and her team have worked to consolidate the stunning display in this room. Among the intensely vibrant illustrations, they have highlighted the much subtler ‘ghost text’ – it is now more visible on sections that previously appeared blank. This offers a fantastic insight into how subsequent layers of overpainting and ‘restoration’ have amended the original scheme.

The team are also carefully collecting samples for detailed lab analysis throughout the conservation project. It is hoped that these, combined with expert knowledge and interpretation, will reveal more of the medieval methods and the chronology of the treasured Crathes ceilings.

The ARG Crathes Ceilings Conservation Project will continue until October, with the castle remaining open throughout. The grant has been provided by Historic Environment Scotland and offers support to conservation-standard repair projects. It will help our charity work towards some of the targets, and deliver necessary investments, set out in the Trust’s ambitious 10-year-strategy Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone, launched earlier this year.

People & Painting: The Story of Crathes Castle by James Burnett of Leys and Kirsty Haslam, available from the castle gift shop, offers a rich exploration of the castle through its decoration and imagery.

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