By Elizabeth Hirst, Karen Morrissey and Alison Aynesworth
Hirst Conservation has enjoyed a long association with Cardiff Castle as consultants and conservators, first working on the interiors in 1989. Following an intensive programme of Architectural Paint Research and condition surveys of the interiors of the Castle during 2000-2002, we were privileged to return to continue the investigation and to undertake conservation and restoration works, this time to the exterior of the Clock Tower.
Under the direction of The Surveyor of the Fabric, John Edwards, the restoration of the clock tower was a major project, resulting in a spectacular return to glory for this highly decorative and brightly polychromed symbol of the Cardiff skyline.
The history of the Clock Tower statues
Building on the site of Cardiff Castle began almost 2,000 years ago and culminated in the nineteenth century with the fantastical High Gothic structure that we see today. The present Cardiff Castle evolved from a house owned by the 3rd Marquis of Bute who enlisted the extraordinary skills of the architect William Burges (1827–81) to redesign the structure and its interiors. Burges unveiled designs for the tower exterior and its interiors at the Royal Academy in 1870.
The theme of the Clock Tower is time. Set to either side of the large, cast iron clocks on each face of the tower are seven over life-sized figures representing the planets as Roman gods. The figures stand on pedestals and hold attributes relating to their sign of the Zodiac. Portrayed in medieval costume, the gods are Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, and Luna.
Black and white photographs of the Clock Tower taken at the end of the nineteenth century show the original designs on the statues. Since these photographs were taken, the statues have been re-painted several times. With each re-painting, the scheme appears to have moved a little further away from the Burges’ vision of 1870 in both colour and design. The last scheme, applied in 1989 using modern resin paints, had aged badly and appeared flat and lifeless, with much bleaching of the colour.
Researching the original decorative finishes
The aim of the investigation was to establish Burges’ original decorative scheme for the painted features of the Clock Tower. Key archives included Burges’ original watercolours and handwritten notes, which described the intended colour palette and use of applied decoration, and late nineteenth-century photographs of the exterior of the Clock Tower.
Painstaking research of the archives and assessment of the paint films of the statues and heraldry of the Clock Tower revealed a truly glittering scheme of decoration. Samples were taken for cross section analysis, providing key information on the history of the painted decoration. Uncovering of the original schemes to identify applied decoration was slow and difficult but gradually all of the designs were revealed.
Results of paint research
The results of the paint research are too great to discuss all the elements of the polychromy on the tower in detail, so the statues of Jupiter and Sol have been selected to represent various aspects encountered during the research, and to serve as examples of the reconstructed decoration.
Although no early photographs exist of Jupiter, determination of the original colour scheme was greatly assisted by early Burges’ watercolour sketches and drawings in which the god is depicted as a king. In Classical representations, Jupiter is often identified by his attributes of a lightening bolt and an eagle. Burges’ designs replace the lightening bolt in Jupiter’s right hand with a more Christian sceptre, and include the eagle as patterning on his robes.
From the original drawings, it is clear that the decoration of Jupiter was intended to be one of the most elaborate of the set of figures, involving the abundant application of gold leaf and detailed repeat motifs. A hand written note from Burges informs us that all areas of yellow on the watercolour are intended to be gold, with the exception of the gloves which were buff.
Removal of sections of over paint revealed that the underlying decoration was often fragmentary, faint and illegible. However, using site measurements, tracings and original watercolours, a total of five repeat designs could be deciphered, including eagles, quatrefoils, rosettes, crowns and circles.
Uncovered evidence of the eagle motif on the tunic was unclear, revealing the scale and layout, but only fragmentary evidence of the wings, body and tail projection. In order to re-create an eagle that resembled Burges’ original design, further evidence was required, including a study of other eagle designs within the castle, and more general heraldic depictions. It was possible to make an approximation of the original eagle by using other sources and the known scale of the design. Of course, this can only be considered an interpretation of the original design and, ethically, its use in an accurate reconstruction may be questioned. It was, however, felt more appropriate to re-instate this important symbol on Jupiter both for completeness of the character and for aesthetic purposes.
Archival information relating to the early decoration of Sol is limited. An early photograph gives some indication of the form of decoration, with a diaper pattern clearly visible around the base of the figure’s tunic. No watercolour sketches were found. The Roman god of the sun is often shown carrying a whip and wearing a radiate crown: In Burges’ representation his head is bare, and he holds in both hands his identifying attribute, the sun.
The figure of Sol must originally have been one of the brightest of the seven statues. Following cross section analysis of samples, a range of uncovering tests were undertaken through which it became clear that original applied decoration was present but extremely deteriorated. Overpaint was therefore removed from substantial areas of the figure to establish the exact layout of patterning on, for example, the tunic.
Whilst cross sections suggested that the hair and the tunic were gilded, uncovering tests revealed that the latter was additionally decorated with bright red five-pointed stars, reminiscent of figures depicted on the roof garden tiles in the interior of the castle. The base of the tunic was decorated with an emerald green pattern, whilst the sun plaque was, surprisingly, not gilded but painted white, with applied shading.
Redecoration of the Clock Tower
Externally, the Clock Tower represents one of the least accessible but most visible examples of Burges’ work at Cardiff Castle. A century of overpainting meant that the intended decorative schemes were no longer apparent. Uncovering tests revealed the difficulty inherent in restoring these schemes, as it was impossible to remove overpaint without causing damage to the significant underlying paint archaeology. Reconstruction through repainting was therefore desirable to restore the artistic completeness of the decoration.
In order to ensure reconstruction was undertaken in the style of the artists who were originally employed by Burges, our team of specialist conservators closely studied original examples within the Castle and at another of Burges’ magnificent interiors, St. Mary’s Church, Studley Royal. This was important to ensure that the glaze layers employed by Burges were faithfully reproduced.
The redecoration was undertaken in lead carbonate oil paints so that the visual properties were closely matched, and also to provide a long lasting finish. Given the inaccessibility of the Clock Tower, it was important to balance the conservation requirements of the statues with the requirements for sound and long lasting finishes.
Designs were applied both freehand and by stencil, which was often distorted to accommodate folds in the clothing of the figure. It is believed that this emulated the technique used to create the original, as many of the patterns were found to be irregular in size. The location of each design was carefully plotted based on the evidence of uncovering and the detailed research of the archives.
The archival and historic paint research needed to re-create the paint schemes on the Clock Tower statues has allowed further insight into the methods and techniques used by the fascinating and eccentric architect William Burges. Reconstruction of the statues brings us closer to Burges’ original vision for the castle, for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the people of Cardiff and her visitors.
Councillor Nigel Howells commented: “The work undertaken on the clock tower has been of the highest quality, and the end product is simply breathtaking. The people of Cardiff and visitors to the city will really notice how striking the statues now are and this is yet another asset for the Welsh capital.”
Hirst Conservation are fine art conservators and historic building consultants. They also supply full consultancy services, including condition surveys and treatment recommendations for the interiors and exteriors of historic buildings.
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Elizabeth Hirst ACR, AMUKIC, FSA
Elizabeth Hirst is a founding partner in Hirst Conservation, based in Lincolnshire, England. Hirst Conservation, founded in 1986, grew to form a multi-disciplined organization possessing a wide range of skills and technical expertise, working in the UK and overseas. The company undertakes conservation of important works dated from the Roman period to the twentieth century.
Karen Morrissey ACR, PgDip, BA(Hons)
Karen Morrissey joined Hirst Conservation in 1997 specializing in the conservation of painted decorations associated research. She is the senior historic paint researcher for the company and is also responsible for the accurate recording of historic interiors, including photographic and diagrammatic formats.
Alison Aynesworth MA, BA (Hons)
Alison Thornton joined Hirst Conservation in 2000 specialising in the conservation of easel paintings. She manages site based projects, and undertakes research in various areas of preventive and interventive conservation. Alison’s involvement with Cardiff Castle began in 2001 when she undertook an extensive condition survey of Burges’ interior decoration.
A version of this article first appeared in the Journal of Architectural Conservation in 2006.