Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Paint: scene one, seen them all

  • Comment
technical & practice

The restoration of Buxton Opera House to its former glory amply illustrates the value of a professional paint analysis Surprisingly, few theatre refurbishment schemes have included a thorough paint analysis - the recently completed restoration of Buxton Opera House being a remarkable exception. In part, this is because theatre managements are fearful of what they might find. There is an assumption that audiences want the full pantomime-fantasy effect - red tip-up seats, lots of velvet and plenty of gilding on the cherubs. Anything else, however authentic, might scare away the punters.

Other concerns are that original schemes may be less robust (pale colours that get quickly scuffed - especially by audiences of Sooty or The Tweenies - the sort of shows that are vital to the economic viability of most regional theatres) or that the owner's wife sees the auditorium and foyer as a playground for her own interior decoration skills. The impact of modern lighting is also an issue.

The original scheme may only have worked with the lower levels of original lighting: will it lose its impact under modern conditions? Or will the pale glow from a lighter wall colour distract audiences from concentrating on the stage when the curtain goes up?

Buxton Opera House is a great building. Designed by prolific theatre specialist Frank Matcham in 1903, it opened the year before his London masterpiece, the Coliseum. The contrast in scales is enormous, but part of what made Matcham so successful was his ability to deliver popular buildings with excellent sight lines, suited to their location. His manipulation of dipping balconies, stepped boxes flanking the stage and lavish, flamboyant decoration, is as impressive on an intimate scale as on a grand one. Like many ex-local authority venues, Buxton is now run by a trust, with a mixture of touring productions and amateur shows.

Buxton Opera House is tucked behind the famous Georgian crescent (which, sadly, still stands empty) at the entrance to the Buxton Winter Gardens. Even as it opened, the Derbyshire town's life as a fashionable spa was more or less at an end, and before long it became a cinema, until it was restored by Arup Associates in 1979 for live theatre use.

Although this restoration was enlightened for its time, it was done on a limited budget and lacked historic authenticity. Conservation thinking has subsequently moved on, as the research which underpins the recent works shows.

The redecoration is part of a £1.7 million Heritage Lottery-funded restoration project, with Jim Standring of Cruickshank & Seward as project architect. Paint research has been carried out by Crick Smith Conservation, and has combined archive searches with cross-sectional analysis of paint samples.

Both Ian Crick and Michael Smith are adamant that they are not in the business of taking 'paint scrapes'. This term suggests an amateur scrubbing away at a patch of wall, the antithesis of a scientific approach, which may completely miss thin layers. The advice from legitimate conservators seems to be that if you are offered scrapes, you have gone to the wrong person: look elsewhere.

Initially concentrating only on the main public areas of the building, the research was later extended to include backstage areas. It is the evidence of social and economic hierarchies, partially eroded by later use, which has proved most fascinating.

Us and them Victorian and Edwardian theatres were built with the segregation of different social classes as a prime objective. The difference between the lowest and highest seat prices was far greater than it is today, and the cheap seats were to be found up cold, bare staircases, accessed directly from outside, and with their own small pay-box. If you were poor you waited in the rain to sit on a hard bench.

This is clearly an experience that few of us are now willing to accept, but the memory of this stratification is very much part of the history of the building, and recreating the paint finishes is a way of allowing the audience to sense this, without getting pneumonia or cramp. Plain brown gloss has been reinstated in the pit (now the rear stalls) and gallery areas. Competent woodgraining is used for mid-priced areas, and hardwood doors and striped wallpaper for the routes to the best seats.

Crick and Smith met when training in conservation at Lincoln School of Art as mature students. Both are completely passionate (if not obsessional) about paint analysis, and both are working on paint-related PhDs.

Despite a substantial country house focus, they have partly specialised in more recent buildings and more prosaic building types. Their current projects include the workhouse at Southwell for the National Trust, the Mackintosh house in Northampton, and a Second World War frigate.

They emphasise how important it is for paint analysis not to be seen as an isolated scientific discipline, but to be fully integrated into the restoration process. Paint research can help to inform choices, such as 'to what date should we restore?' The absence of early paint layers on some elements can reveal that these are later alterations, and so help unravel complex building histories - at Buxton, for example, they confirmed speculations about changes to the gallery level.

Microscopic analysis of paint layers can flesh out more details: no layer of dirt between first and second layers suggests that the initial scheme was an utter disaster and painted over within six months; a very grimy layer can show a long period of neglect, perhaps reflecting a downturn in the building's economic fortune.

Lack of understanding on the part of architects and conservation officers means that sometimes paint researchers are asked to tender for work on the basis of a fee per sample, or against a predefined total number ofsamples. At Buxton, Crick Smith ended up with more than 1,500 samples, but on the advice of Helen Hughes, English Heritage senior architectural paint researcher, they had tendered to a brief which asked for a comprehensive analysis.

In fact, the relative cost of each sample is negligible compared with the journey time of the consultant and the costs of putting up ladders and scaffolding. The total costs of Crick Smith's work (which included instructing the decorators and approving samples panels) was a very reasonable £15,000 plus VAT.

Modus operandi For each significant area of wall or decorative element, a fragment was removed from the wall, right down to the substrate, using a scalpel or small chisel or, on joinery, a dental drill.

Crick explains that it is best to be bold and decisive when taking samples.

'Being too precious may mean you keep going back and end up with a machine gun-pocked effect, which is more intrusive.'

Each sample is immediately sealed in a separate plastic bag and labelled.

On return to the workshop it is mounted in polyester resin. One side of each block is polished away, and this edge is examined under a microscope. A resolution of 500x is needed to show up very thin layers of gilding (an early survey by a firm of decorators had mistakenly suggested that there was no gilding at Buxton), but 100-200x resolution shows up most of the layers, and photomicrographs are taken of samples at this scale.

Cross-referencing the results of this analysis with a detailed on-site examination of the building, along with archive research, is the next stage. The description of the original decorative scheme at Buxton in the Builder (13.6.1903) concurred with what had been found, but was decidedly vague - documentary evidence on its own could not have led to an accurate recreation. The article told readers that the 'colours are blue, gold and cream. The whole decoration is in the style of Louis XIV' - useful, but hardly the full 'paintingby-numbers' key that Crick Smith could define.

The next stage was to decide what should be put back. Given the Heritage Lottery funding, the presumption was that historical accuracy was the goal, but Buxton Opera House is not a historic house. Telling the story of the building is not the principal objective. Whatever scheme chosen had to work as a background to modern productions and present day theatre-going. The Buxton Opera House Trust and High Peak project manager Ian Bate are to be congratulated on having the courage and vision not to modulate the results, but they might have wanted to do so had the results proved less palatable.

Hughes believes that giving clients a 'let-out' at this stage is important. If they know that something they do not like will not be imposed on them without their agreement, they are more likely to have the confidence to commission research. She always campaigns for proper paint analysis at an early stage in conservation projects. 'Ideally, the information needs to be available for inclusion and interpretation in a conservation plan, but all too often architects think they are doing well if they highlight the need to carry out research at all.'

She also emphasises the need to make sure that evidence is not destroyed, and was horrified to discover that even some of the best conservation architects may stipulate the total removal of existing paint layers.

Restoration of the easel paintings incorporated into the decorative scheme has been carried out separately, by fine art conservator Brian Cardy. These were painted by De Jong (a favourite of Matcham's) on canvas in his studio, and then brought to site to be trimmed and stuck in place on the plasterwork medallions.

This was no straightforward task:

some areas were convex, others concave, and the decorative cartouches and other elements of the plasterwork overhang the paintings.

As a consequence, the canvasses were quite crudely cut to fit, tacked in place and, in some areas, patched up on site by either the artist himself or his assistant.

Sorting out which areas are later overpainting and which are original touching-in has been a tricky job - it is by no means certain that the on-site work would have been of the same quality, or would have used the same pigments, as the workshop elements.

However, cross-sectional analysis has backed up stylistic judgements in some areas, by showing a layer of discoloured varnish between the original paint layers and the overpaint.

Ideally, the research and decisionmaking processes for all elements of the interior would be fully integrated, but at Buxton different specialist project monitors and advisers have been involved. In this case it would probably have made little difference to the outcome, but there will be times when the findings of separate teams will impact on one another.

For instance, if original panels have been lost, it may be best not to revert to the original wall scheme but to reinstate a later one. The architect needs to allow time for this research to be discussed and to ensure that the results are compatible with the overall objectives of the project.

Finished article Coordination with a wallpaper specialist at Buxton has been very positive. By using raking light, it was possible to make out the patterns of lost embossed papers in surviving fragments of paste.

A modern Anaglypta design, based on a 1900-10 pattern, has been chosen as a near match. Historic wallpaper consultant Allan Bruce has advised on a striped design for auditorium and box areas, and has recommended treatments to maintain the surviving areas of Cordelova paper on the ceilings. This is a similar product to Anaglypta, but formed from paper pulp and with a higher relief.

Now the refurbishment has been completed, Buxton Opera House looks fantastic. The impact of all the changes is impressive, and the decorative scheme reinforces the overall design. As Michael Smith points out:

'Gilding was used to add that touch of glamour, but also to make sense of the architectural elements.' Gilded instruments now stand out and gilded laurel swags loop neatly through rings and paterae.

Comparison of the foyer frieze before and after the redecoration illustrates how important seemingly subtle modifications have been.

Initially, the colours selected were felt to be darker than those in the 1979 scheme, but now they are in place, the overall effect appears lighter and more modelled under artificial illumination. The scheme also works well with the alabaster moulding and columns.

As with many aspects of restoration, there are levels of authenticity, suited to different situations. At Buxton the original colours have been matched in modern commercial paints (but using gold leaf rather than the gold paint of the 1979 scheme).

Because the building is Grade II* listed, using lead-based paints was an option, but this was felt to be inappropriate for several reasons, not least that lead paint is best suited to conditions where a very long life is required;

the theatre will want to redecorate, or at least touch up areas of heavy public use on a regular basis. The ultimate purist's solution could go even further than this and recreate historic pigments from scratch.

Buxton shows what a difference good paint research can make. It also highlights the need to carry out research as early as possible, to have a sensible brief and to make sure that the research and supervision of subsequent redecoration are sensibly integrated. There is definitely a need for more high-quality specialists in this field, and English Heritage hopes to initiate a regular internship programme to provide training.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.