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building study

Danson House offers an excellent example of 'informed conservation'. Rather than imposing a presentation on the building, detailed research gave it the opportunity to speak for itself.

Documentary evidence for the house was sparse and it was the examination of the structure, fittings and decorative finishes that allowed the building to disclose its history.

Examination of wall finishes hidden behind Victorian additions revealed the original Naples tinted paint applied by the owner John Boyd. The fact that the entrance hall had remained undecorated for 100 years is a poignant reminder of the Boyd family's rapid financial decline. But the painted decorations also reveal the optimism of a happier period in 1766, when Boyd moved into the just-completed house with his new young wife.

Apart from the paintings, careful investigation discovered evidence of the original decoration applied at that time to the four principal rooms. Remarkably, the intricate gilding of the cornice of the saloon survives untouched from this period, and analysis revealed extensive gilding to the ceiling and joinery, which had been overpainted.

On completion of their work on the frieze, the 18thcentury decorators wiped their blue paintbrushes on the bare plaster, which was then covered by flamboyant wallpaper. The plaster plaque of Boyd's bride preparing for her wedding had been relegated from the library to a service room (most likely by her step-son when he inherited the house in 1800) and has now been reinstated, along with the deep green lustrous paint which originally embellished the library walls.

Another remarkable discovery was the dramatic trompe l'oeil decoration of the staircase dome, which had been overpainted in the early 19th-century. The almost impressionistic brushwork has now been carefully revealed, and provides another insight into Danson - but it also poses questions about the decoration of Taylor's other properties.

The quality and clarity of Taylor's original scheme emerged as the research progressed, so the conservation/presentation philosophy for the building almost wrote itself. Later additions to the house were carefully assessed but it was agreed that the Regency frieze in the library, late 19th-century radiator grille and ceiling roses in the dining room - along with the vibrant gloss paint applied during the 1970s - were of minor significance. All of these later phases of the house's history have been carefully recorded and removed as elements placed in store.

Working closely as an integrated research team, the historians, building analysts and architectural paint researchers were able to pinpoint and date precise changes made within the building. The study of applied architectural paint layers has come a long way from shoddy 'paint scrapes' on the one hand and impenetrable 'scientific reports' on the other, and has now developed a standardised methodology which aims to provide a narrative of change within a building.

1 Every paint layer provides a unique insight into the wishes and aspirations of the person who applied it. We must also highlight the fact that the unconsidered stripping of historic paint is tantamount to ripping up original documentation.

Architectural historians need to get their heads out of the sand and embrace this important research resource, if our understanding of historic buildings is to progress.

Helen Hughes, head of Historic Interiors Research and Conservation, English Heritage

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