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Case study: Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House is one of Frank Matcham's most glorious Edwardian plaster palaces. It was opened on 1 June 1903. A contemporary description gives some sense of its splendour among the millstone towns of the Peak District: 'Over the entrance vestibule is the grand foyer? furnished with counter, etc, for the dispensing of refreshments. The floor is covered with Turkey carpets, and there are silk brocade draperies to the windows; the walls are covered with a leather paper, and the ceiling is richly decorated with raised ornamental Cordelova. Mirrors and old prints adorn the walls.' The auditorium's oval dome was 'formed into six painted panels representing music, painting, poetry, literature, dancing and comedy; a large curved shaped frieze joins this to the flat panelled ceiling over the stage [which contains] paintings in monochrome, representing grace, strength and music. The Buxton coat-ofarms, also treated in monochrome on a gold background, forms a graceful feature over the proscenium arch.' The whole effect was recorded in The Builder of 13 June 1903 as 'blue, gold and cream [?] in the style of Louis XVI'.

The opera house hosted live theatrical performances in this interior, 'brilliantly illuminated by the electric light', until around 1930 when it alternated functions with the new-fangled cinema screen that came to provide its main business after 1945. It closed down in the 1970s, but support for the Grade II building then came from The Opera House Trust, which championed an extensive renovation and internal repainting in 1979. The foyer was dressed with pale cream emulsion, the plaster mouldings picked out with white and gold paint, and the joinery in dark cream. This version of French interior painting exercised limited discipline in the choice of highlighted decorative elements, and used paint over original gilding, but it was part of a project on a limited budget that saved the entire structure, which instantly renders any criticism churlish.

A few years ago, the opera house was treated to a major restoration supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The architect was Jim Standring of Cruickshank and Seward. Crick Smith Conservation of Newark was commissioned by High Peak Borough Council and instructed by Helen Hughes of English Heritage's architectural paint research unit with the aim of reinstating Matcham's 1903 scheme. The descriptions alone could not suffice to inform the work, nor the presumption that the original scheme had been adhered to, so the full toolbox of the paint analyst was brought out.

The first phase of sampling began on 19 October 2000. Crick Smith Conservation's Ian Crick and Michael Smith took their scalpels to tiny areas on a carefully planned series of particular features throughout the interiors, based on an understanding that the regular repetition of architectural elements usually utilises colour as a system (one wouldn't expect egg-and-dart mouldings to look like a row of painted Easter eggs). The use of pale cream and true gold leaf gilding was identified, and fragments of wallpapers were found.

The samples of accumulated paint layers were bound in polyester resin and magnified 40 times with a microscope, to reveal a mille feuille of historic colours upon the earliest 1903 scheme of cream and blue and brown, which was still attached to the primed wood cells.

The conclusion made by Crick Smith was that Matcham had not only used colour as a unifying design tool by repeating painted elements such as thematic mouldings throughout the building but, more importantly, he had separated colour to emphasise the divisions of class according to the price and location of ticketed seats. The pit, stalls and gallery were executed in restrained and simple paints, whereby woodgraining in the dress circle was replaced by brown paint in these cheaper areas. The prominent and generous gilding in the dress circle level was replaced by cream/yellow paint with gilded highlights only in the upper circle.

Whether or not one is an advocate of the expensive and anachronistic processes of restoration, it is clear that paint analysis can tell us new things about the attitudes held by designers and patrons toward the users of their buildings. As a colourful lesson in lost experience, and as a primer in social history, that final layer of paint frequently yields far more than superficial interest.

For more information contact Ian Crick via email at ianscrick@hotmail. com

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