Theme: doors, windows and ironmongery
The Coliseum is just off Trafalgar Square, at the bottom of St Martin's Lane. Home to the English National Opera, it has just reopened following a ú58 million refurbishment by Arts Team @ RHWL, under the watchful eye of English Heritage officials.
Most attention has focused on the beautifully restored auditorium, but the success of the whole operation has depended on the details - and among these was the architectural ironmongery.
Scott Beaven, eponymous director of the Gateshead specialist architectural ironmonger, explains the preliminaries: 'We have quite a background in restoration. We have done work in Scotland and are currently working on St George's Hall in Liverpool, so we felt we had the experience and we put our name forward. There was a very short interview, mainly to see if we were up to the job, and then we went into tender with four other companies.
'We knew we could do it and I suspect we got the contract because we took an experienced guess and said we would do it for ú200,000. I think the others wanted a list of questions answered and quoted an hourly rate. We had a price that we would stick with. So we were novated to the general contractor - who took the pieces off the doors, numbered them, bagged them up and sent them to us. We took out the items and cleaned them or made them new and gave them back. It was a bag of working door ironmongery for a bag of junk.' The items included handles, back-plates, kick-plates, closers, panic bars and floor springs, most of them in bronze. There were two sizes of door handles - 90 large ones and 45 small, but both took the form of cod-Roman torches attached to back-plates that had also been used on the other side of doors as the push-plate. These handles were in cast bronze and, Beaven says, 'the normal way would have been to take a sand casting from the actual handle and make a bronze working model'. But the sharp edges had worn off over a century of use. Had Beaven simply taken casts of the handles they would have been of the 21st-century version, not the original.
So Beaven employed a sculptor, who used a clay casting of the original, sharpened up the edges and blurred details, and from this clean-cut 'original' made a master for multiple bronze casts using the traditional lost wax process in which a wax master, incorporating blow and drain routes, is enveloped in compacted sand. Molten bronze poured into the top melts the wax, and this drains away, leaving the solidifying bronze in its place. The scruffy piece of bronze broken out from the middle of the sand is trimmed and filed, then buffed back to the form of the original model.
English Heritage was not entirely happy with the match between the new bronze castings and those old door handles that remained acceptable for reuse. They had acquired a unique patina. In the end it said that the Beaven handles should be electroplated to match the current antique bronze colour of the originals. On the other hand, English Heritage was content for Beaven to use three of its existing range of Edwardian handles, and for it to modify others it had in stock. There were only a few of these, and the cost of moulding and casting would have been unreasonably prohibitive. In the case of the kick-plates, the only option was plating because it is almost impossible to buy sheet bronze. The new L-shaped kickplates and their decorative edges were cut from sheet brass using a template - and then bronze-plated to match the rest of the door furniture.
The really difficult items, Beaven says, 'were the panic bars, for which we had to machine lots of very tricky parts. You can sometimes source post-war panic bars but these were so old that they were all broken because, over the years, no one had the parts to repair them. The panic bar boxes had a lot of little levers and springs and we machined one complete new box. But we were able to salvage parts for others - we needed to make 14 panic bars and could cannibalise 22 [from non-essential parts of the theatre] but still we had to make some springs and screws.' The people who can do this work are fast disappearing. Beaven says: 'They have little lathes in their garages and are mainly retired - our lock man has worked with locks and keys all his life. The nicest thing was that the panic-bar chap can actually remember making them as a boy apprentice.'