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Rainbow alliance

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Are conservators full of good advice or are they an intrusion? A project to rebuild a London theatre may help you to decide

What should be conserved? There are different schools of thought, different categories of artefact and approaches to the subject vary, so general definitions are problematic.

Professional conservators are best placed to negotiate the concerns and practical implications of clients as well as the architects without jeopardizing the care of historic artefacts.

According to A B Alyushin, assistant professor of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg, a conservator's job is to 'preserve the structure of the original (artefact)', thus extending its lifespan as far as possible. He also says that the aim of cleaning is 'to bring to light all the spiritual and material values possessed by the artefact and to remove things which distort the values and prevent the object from functioning as an artistic and historical entity'.

Cleaning murals or oil paintings is often seen as the most common, and yet potentially controversial, activity undertaken by conservators;

judge for yourselves from the furore surrounding the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel and other priceless works of art. Whether it involves the removal of surface dirt and dust, more ingrained layers, stains, greasy deposits or other non-original layers such as discoloured films of varnish, cleaning should be undertaken with great sensitivity and care by a conservator. The emphasis is placed firmly on not removing any original material such as artists' final glazes. Finally, conservators have a responsibility 'to preserve and hand down to the future our cultural heritage'.

In these remarks from an article in The Picture Restorer, Alyushin is referring to painting conservators in particular but the approach is, broadly speaking, adaptable to a range of artefacts and contexts, and various technical and aesthetic problems.

Historic decorative interiors may be 'no oil paintings' but they do often require careful consideration. Nowadays, interiors with a history are becoming highly regarded and often conserved and restored in part or whole.

Labour intensive When undertaking the repair, refurbishment, restoration, preservation or conservation of historic buildings, architects may encounter all kinds of problems that a conservator may be able to help solve. From decaying stonework to collapsing stained glass windows, from peeling original paintwork to wood borer attack, conservators are available in all sizes and a wide range of specialisms. At best we offer sensible and practical advice, perhaps even saving time and money. At worst we are deemed an unwelcome intrusion, arriving late on a project, attempting to repair and retain things that might otherwise have ended up in the skip, delaying the programme and pushing up costs.

A conservator is often simply engaged as a specialist contractor or subcontractor or just as a consultant for a particular job. In some cases it may also be appropriate to take on a conservator as a project manager or onsite consultant so that the project can be monitored and works coordinated in such a way as to ensure that the historic artefact or building is given sufficient care and consideration throughout the work.

A conservator should be involved at an early stage, preferably as a consultant before the specification is written and listed building consent applied for. This course of action should be a matter for the professional judgment of the architect in consultation with other parties rather than simply being an instruction by the local conservation officer.

A conservator will often work with both architect and conservation officer to rediscover the history of the building from the available archival and physical evidence.Depending on the circumstances, commissioning an initial report will usually be the first step. This involves a description of the artefact in its physical and historic context, an examination of the materials and their condition, an assessment of the causes of deterioration with proposed remedial measures and a consideration of the aesthetic/presentation issues.

To fully complete this may require historical research, technical examination, preliminary testing and liaison with other parties involved from structural engineers to local historians. This may take a little time at the early stages of a project but will generally help architects develop empathetic design solutions and subsequent smooth execution of the project. Many architects and related professionals already know most of this and employ conservators accordingly, but some do not.

With a given conservation issue, a conservator will have to consider many different factors that may have a bearing on other parts of the project as a whole. The artefact and the project need to be looked at in their specifics. For example, the maintenance of acceptable environmental conditions for a wallpainting during the installation of a heating system or remedial works to a damaged roof may require that these works are carried out using different methods, be undertaken in a different sequence or require additional pre-emptive or protective measures to ensure that the risk of adverse effects is minimized.

Liberal coats of paint I recently worked with architect Nicholas Rule, of Farrington Dennys Fisher, on the Grade II* listed Rainbow Theatre (formerly the Astoria) in Finsbury Park, London. A number of archive black and white photographs were assembled from sources including the Theatres and Cinemas Association, Islington council, English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England. These helped both architect and conservator to understand the original 1930 interior design concept and how changes of use, ownership and taste had informed subsequent schemes.

Originally built for Paramount, the Astoria brought Hollywood glamour, large-scale mock grandeur and Berber exoticism to a pretourist, north London audience in the inter-war depression.

In the case of this decorative interior its importance lay more in the integrity of its design than in the (largely overpainted) original layers of paint, but we still needed to find out what had been there originally.

Paint samples were taken from the different architectural features; these were set in resin blocks, made into cross-sections and examined closely under a microscope. The resulting strata of paint layers were compared with the archive photographs to outline the decorative history of the interior and compose a relatively detailed specification for its restoration back to the 1930 design. In this case the design had value by virtue of its rarity and the extent of its survival despite some severe condition problems (mainly due to a short period of neglect in the '80s).

The original interior was that of an atmospheric cinema, themed in form, colour and fittings on a Moorish-influenced design. Similar cinemas tended towards the more familiar Art Deco style, which at the Rainbow is seen only as a relative influence on the central Moorish theme. The change to a less exotic, more abstract styling was reflected in the simplified schemes of redecoration undertaken from 1939 onwards, when the building first changed ownership.

One part of the Rainbow Theatre expresses this balance between theme and the theatrical on the one hand and style on the other. The Spanish Bar, as it has become known, represents a courtyard with mock roof tiles surrounding an open sky, a view of the Spanish landscape (a mural containing Alhambra-style buildings), through a leafy colonnade and drinking fountains illuminated by artificial daylight shining through arched and trellised windows.

The Spanish Bar has no significant daylight illumination so all the lighting used was theatrically sited to create the effect of being in an open courtyard. The paint strata indicated that, although plain, flatter areas had been repainted several times, the more ornate sections of the plasterwork and the mural behind the colonnade had retained their original finishes. Therefore a mixture of conservation and restoration measures was adopted. The surviving original paintwork was repaired, consolidated and cleaned and the main areas were redecorated following the original colour scheme. This part of the building is situated between the 3,000-capacity auditorium with its grand Moorish styling, Spanish village stage set decor and atmospheric lighting effects and the predominantly naturally lit, more conventional, though no less grand, foyer and entrance lobby.

Whether you remember the Rainbow as the Astoria, seeing the Beatles play there, or whether you use it today as a place of worship, I hope you would agree that the restoration of the interior was well worth carrying out. Perhaps unexpectedly, the whole project was completed without grant aid, showing that where there is a client with the will, a way to conserve and restore our cultural heritage can be found.

Andy Hurst is a conservator of paintings and interiors. E-mail AHIRST ARH@aol. com

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