Saturday 20 December 2014

Happy Christmas 2014

2014 has been a roller-coaster ride! I was contracting for Schlumberger in Abingdon, yet again, for the early part of the year. I've always been very happy there, but was still looking forward to taking the summer off to be hands-on restoring Balintore Castle.

I find the transition between the south and the north painful, because I am doing totally different things at the two ends of the country and I hate abandoning the current tasks when I leave. The re-motivation and re-connection period at the other end is around a fortnight. Then I'm fine!

Anyhow, I was just getting into the swing of things at the castle this summer when my back "went" slightly. It wasn't too bad but it was worrying as the pain felt similar to my herniated disc 18 years ago.

Shortly afterwards I headed down to Norfolk for a small holiday, looking after some kids, while their parents attended a conference in the US. The first morning I was alone with the kids, I got out of bed, put on my underpants, had got one leg in my trousers then collapsed on the floor in total agony. It took me 2 hours to get my trousers on fully, so I could go downstairs tell the kids something was not quite right.

All-in-all, I spent around 10 weeks in my kindly and very accommodating friends' guest room, unable to walk, sit down or even lie down. The one position where the pain was less was on my left hand side so this is where I stayed. As time wore on, I was able to get around by crawling on all fours, and hobbling upright for short periods before the pain got too much. My major "excursion" every day was to my friends' hen house and poly-tunnel all of 50 yards down the garden. Some days the journey was easier than others; on other days it was impossible. So even though I was unable to go shopping, I didn't starve, and had a very healthy diet. Though it will be several years until I can eat another courgette. :-)

The major problem was getting medical attention - the same disc had not just herniated/bulged but burst. The waiting list for the operation is 20 weeks in Norfolk but I simply could not get on this list and the bureaucracy went round and round in endless circles for months. My mind had started to go with constant intense pain and isolation, and I knew that over 6 months of this would send me off the deep end. Some neighbours in the village were great, they would have me over for a meal every-so-often and we would have a good laugh which worked wonders for short-term morale.

My next move was to phone Ninewells Hospital in Dundee to make inquiries about having the operation there. I explained that I was crippled, and that someone would have to drive me to Scotland and that I would need the operation very soon after this as I could not look after myself. Anyhow they found me a slot in a fortnight. :-) Andy, my builder, was a complete star and drove all the way down to England to pick me up. I had one day at the castle before the operation. I wanted to see the newly installed bay windows in the drawing room. I felt I should get some benefit from the big money I had paid for them, in case I died on the operating table. The windows looked superb, and the amazing view across the glen, through them, would not have been any compromise as a “last view”.

After the operation the pain totally disappeared. :-) A friend collected me the following day. He couldn't keep up. I was so pleased to be mobile and so keen to start living again that I was literally running out of the hospital! I've had a few twinges subsequently, but life has definitely restarted.

I was forbidden from lifting anything for 6 weeks afterwards and standing on the sidelines while Andy worked away at the castle was frustrating. However, I did manage a few weeks of light manual work after this, which were incredibly satisfying, before having to head south again to look for work over the winter.

Snow arrived at Balintore the week after I left. Here is the obligatory snow-covered Christmasy image than Andy sent me.

Happy Christmas from a chilly Balintore Castle

I had planned to put in underfloor heating this summer, but the extremely curtailed restoration season put paid to this. With such a long term project as Balintore, you have to be extremely philosophical. If illness puts an extra year onto the schedule then that's just the way it is. Ironically, the permission to make the first part of castle habitable (the kitchen wing) came through from Angus Council while I was crippled in Norfolk. I have been waiting for this permission for 7 years, freezing every winter at the castle as I have not been allowed to put in insulation and heating. Now I had the permission, but was too ill to act on it.

In contrast, Andy with the occasional help of other local craftsmen, has made great strides this year in the main body of the castle: fixing up turrets, installing new/reconditioned windows and (re)building floors. In terms of being able to walk around the interior spaces of the castle, this year has seen the biggest gains. Before this, the interior was pitch black due to the boarded up windows, and due to the dry rot it was unsafe to leave the corridor and enter most of the rooms if indeed the room had a floor.

Now you can walk around a reasonable proportion of the building and the feel is very different. There is a re-connection to previous inhabitants, as you realise this room would have been regarded as the best bedroom and that room would clearly have been used as a private sitting room, etc.

This year a number of followers of my blog have come out of the woodwork! It was a delight to discover that there are more people than I suspected who enjoy reading it. So for your interest, support and numerous small kindnesses I would like to thank you.

Anyhow, I send my best Christmas and New Year wishes to you, family, friends and friends of Balintore!

Entry in Architecture Book

As part of a mission to collate all unearthed information relating to Balintore Castle, this blog entry presents two scans from a book on Scottish architecture. For the life of me, I cannot recall the name of the book or indeed if I ever knew it, because the scans were kindly given to me by a friend.

This entry for Balintore Castle is described in words very accurately to a high level of detail. The compiler of the book must be quite a perfectionist. My only quibbles are that the kitchen wing is called an "office wing", and that the stone is described as grey whereas I would call it brown. It is, however, my belief that the castle started off as grey and oxidised to brown. Nevertheless, I cannot give the author the benefit of age, as the book mentions the collapsed oriel window, so it must have been written after 2000 when this occurred. Stylistically, the book looks much older.

Many people ask me how long the castle took to build. I have never known the answer, but this entry suggests a mere two years i.e. 1859-1860.

I am indebted to the author, for teaching me a new word aedicular in relation to the entrance. Aedicular means framed: Balintore's front door is flanked by two pillars (strictly pilasters) and a-topped by a pediment.

book page 345:  entry on Balintore Castle: part 1

book  page 346: entry on Balintore Castle: part 2

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Transplanting Griffin Eyes

One of the reasons I took on a castle restoration was in order to do things that I would have never imagined doing myself. Increasingly, I am finding that the reality of castle restoration goes yet one better: I am doing things that I could not have even have imagined in the first place. This evening I transplanted griffin eyes. Who would have known in an advance, and I suspect not even J.K.Rowling,  that such an activity existed? How did this come to pass?

An antique connoisseur friend visited and commented that the two griffins that adorned my Art Deco inkstand would originally have had gemstone eyes. I had thought this myself, but somehow someone else mentioning it was a spur to inevitable action.

The 3 mm diameter dull eye sockets somehow demanded brilliant cut rubies. My budget said synthetic, and eBay obliged for £1.99. :-) The following photos show how you transplant griffin eyes!

inkstand before: offendingly eyeless griffins
dull unseeing eye-socket
polishing eye-socket using wire-wool on screwdriver
polished eye socket (to help gem sparkle)
7 gems bought off eBay for £1.99
inserted and glued gem

inkstand after : flame-eyed griffins

The only technical complexity was 7 gems and only 4 sockets. In fact, the sockets were quite deep and looked best with two gems inserted. One of my griffins has one sunken eye, but do you know I am getting a warm glow of griffin gratitude and aesthetic completion. 

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Article in Dundee Courier 12th November 2014

Balintore Castle made a surprising (to me!) appearance in yesterday's Dundee Courier in an article entitled "Local heritage is under threat". Many thanks to Gregor for sending me the scans.

Courier article: section on Balintore Castle

Amazingly there is just one error in the section on Balintore Castle. The other buildings featured are:

  • Old Parish Church, Blackford
  • St. Columbas's RC School Cupar
  • Seaman Chapel, Candle Lane
  • South Lodge, Camperdown Park
  • West Lodge, Camperdown Park
  • St. David's Halls(17C), Nethergate
  • NCR office block, Kingsway
  • Bell Mill, Lower Dens Works
  • Baxter Brothers Flax Mills
  • Verdant Works High Nill
  • Kircaldy South Pier

It was notable, in a nice way, that Balintore Castle was the first property mentioned. :-)

full Courier article

The Pink Plans

Despite owning Balintore Castle for some time, it is eminently possible still to be surprised by things that turn up. Quite recently, I got sent the following set of plans of Balintore Castle by a friend called James. I had never seen these plans before and so was at once surprised, delighted and grateful!  

James's family are restoring another building by William Burn called Revesby Abbey, and during his search for the plans of the Abbey at RIBA in London he came across these of Balintore. Although they are only grabbed mobile phone shots they are quite clear, though of course I would love to have high quality scans. 

I have dubbed these the "pink plans" as the walls are filled in with a salmon colour. I suspect these were made for the client, as they are much simplified non-technical plans and highlight the room layout, which is what most customers are concerned with. They are dated 1859, and note the old spelling "Balentore". James also scanned in an artist's impression of the castle, which was no doubt also used to sell the idea to the customer. I love the fact that the modest mountains round the castle have grown into dramatic gothic crags. :-)

The building as built is slightly different from the pink plans. Chiefly, the actual bedroom floor is organised as three bedrooms and three dressing rooms, whereas the pink plans show four bedrooms and two dressing rooms. However, the last minute conversion of a bedroom to a dressing room has been somewhat "bodged" with an awkward small private corridor and a dummy door that ironically that I only just discovered a few days ago i.e. there is a solid wall behind. I always knew there was something "not quite right" about this area of the castle, and the pink plans explain exactly what happened i.e. in the pink plans the dummy door is a real door.

pink plans: basement
pink plans: principal floor
pink plans: bedroom floor
pink plans: attic
artists impression of castle: some artistic licence with landscape

Tuesday 11 November 2014

When a House Dies

A period of residence in the south of England ignited an old hobby of looking for fireplaces to replace those stripped out or smashed up at Balintore Castle. As England is more densely populated than Scotland and, er, more affluent there is a far better chance of finding something suitable within a reasonable distance.

Anyhow, the fireplace below appeared one day on eBay. The marble is exquisite, a rich deep red with some white veining, and the carving is glorious - like nothing I have ever seen before. You will need to click on the image to get the full benefit. The pattern of almost fractal spirals is unique in my experience, and certainly caused me to be uncertain about the date of the piece. The carpet in the image is 1980's as is the panelling, so perhaps the piece is reproduction despite the overall feel of the 19th Century? I identified some of the vertical veins as possible repairs, but working within the resolution of the photograph it was impossible to tell.

fireplace bought off eBay

Anyhow, I managed to snipe the item for a joyous £79. The caveat was that I had to remove the fireplace from the wall myself, and to transport it myself. I had no idea how to remove a fireplace, especially without destroying the panelling, but I figured there's always a first time for everything! :-) I had just the weekend to remove the fireplace, as the demolition proper started on the Monday. No pressure there then. I did my Internet research on the property "Coombe Edge" near Ascot. The current owners are an Indian family who made their money in construction and shipping. I noticed in the plans lodged with the Surrey Council, that the replacement dwelling will have wings either side at 45 degrees after the American fashion.

I forget to take my smart phone with me, so there is no record of my own "demolition" work or the other people reclaiming bits-and-bobs around me. It literally was a form of "open house" and I felt somewhat of a vulture. Essentially, everything had to go. The couple, Adam and Julie, in charge of the salvage operation were helpful and well organised. In fact, there was much productive swapping of tools amongst the parties.

I did manage to find some photos of Coombe Edge from a recent sales brochure. It was priced at £6.5 million. The aerial shot comes from Google Maps.

Coombe Edge: entrance with columns

Coombe Edge: stairway

Coombe Edge: library with fireplace and desk

Coombe Edge: indoor pool

Coombe Edge: aerial view

 It was strange to think that in a couple of days the building would be flattened. The demolition machines were waiting impatiently on the drive. Anyhow, I set to work with the fireplace. I hammered a 3" scraper tool into the gap under the mantelshelf. It only went in so far - should I have brought something longer? However, I worked along the edge of the shelf, petrified of breaking something. For the longest time nothing happened. Finally the shelf moved a little, and I was able to lift it off. I proceeded in this way, step by step until the fireplace was transformed into a catalogue of parts. The fireplace surprisingly had been built totally in front of the 1980's panelling: in fact it was only connected to the panelling by two wires. Thank goodness I did not have to get the panelling off. This suggested the fireplace was installed in the 1980's and through dismantling I became aware of definite historic repairs. So the fireplace was reclaim not reproduction. The installation had been top class, even thin lines of china clay jointing has been painted purple to match the fireplace and the repairs themselves were very well executed. I did not do any damage removing the fireplace :-) but one of the historic repairs wobbled, so for safely I spit the piece of marble at this join for safe transportation. I still am mystified by the style of the fireplace, but would call it Victorian heritage Arts and Crafts, and date it to the late 19th Century or early 20th Century. In any case, it fitted well with the Arts and Crafts style of Coombe Edge. The red marble is very similar to the red griotte marble that some of the Balintore fireplaces were made of, so the find was very fortuitous indeed.

Behind the fireplace was a stone firebox, with some sections actually in white marble painted with black high temperature paint. This was fronted by an arch of white marble, against which the arched red marble fireplace proper fitted. Originally, I suspect,  the fireplace would have had a huge curved metal insert. However, something this size would had been difficult to find, so the re-fitters improvised with their own solution in stone. The re-fitters had also created a white marble hearth, which unfortunately was fitted against the fireplace rather than under, so the fireplace lost some height and grandeur in the process. However, I am no fool and picked up the components stones of the hearth and the firebox. My pick-up was groaning! Reconstructing the fireplace will be as simple as putting the pieces back just as I found them in the library of Coombe Down

In fact the carved spirals of the fireplace reminded me of a famous J.R.R.Tolkein illustration.

Tolkein illustration reminiscent of fireplace

Scott and Julie asked if I was interested in anything else at Coombe Edge. I said yes, but that I would remove the fireplace first as I was not sure how long it would take, and only then address other items. At one point while I was removing the fireplace, and another couple were removing a fitted desk next to me, Julie declared she was bored and had nothing to do. I told her that if she wanted to removed the sash window finger pulls I would give her £1 for each of them. We had discussed the sash windows earlier. There had been no time to organise anything, and these were just going to be trashed. As someone who is spending a lot of money on bespoke sash windows for Balintore Castle I was almost in a hospitalisable state at this revelation! :-)

Anyhow, here is Julie's bucket of finger pulls (46 of these) . Scott then got the sash window catches off for me (10 of these). I polished up some representatives and they have come up beautifully. The finger pulls are quality and would suit Balintore. The window catches are an Arts and Crafts "rose" brass: lovely items but perhaps not the right style for Balintore.

bucket of salvaged sash window fittings

salvaged sash fittings before and after polishing

Oh for the missed items at Coombe Edge! Scott and I tried to remove a pair of small but monumentally constructed Victorian radiators that would be perfect for Balintore. I was looking for just such a pair for a couple of window alcoves. However, the nuts had rusted up and we could not turn them for love nor money, with our modest wrench. As I wanted to leave before dark, I suggested it was best just to admit defeat. The beautiful wooden staircase will be firewood by now. Someone tried to lift the beautiful 80's parquet floor in the hallway, but unlike Victorian parquet, this was only around 4mm thick and split on lifting, so this salvage was abandoned. There was no time either to collect any of the window shutters which were Balintore style, but I'm guessing/hoping were not the right sizes. The house had a reprieve with a 1980's makeover, and though this was top class, still the materials were not Victorian quality. When Scott and I removed the MDF radiator covers with a crowbar, the bits of MDF simply split!  Victorian carpentry sections would have stayed intact.

Scott allowed me to run around the building to look for salvage e.g. radiators. This was a huge joy though tinged with sadness. Afterwards I was able to reflect on what I has seen: a house in its death throws. Without the furniture and indeed with the shell of a 1980's makeover, the interior was surprisingly bland. However, I have long since learned that atmosphere is created not just by a building, but by fittings, furniture and most importantly people. :-) Nevertheless, there was no disguising the magnificence of the stairway and the quality of the Arts and Crafts portico at the main entrance. These carved Cotswold stone pillars were marvellously done: Moderne in design, but still with the subtle curves that harked back to Ancient Greece. The Oxford Colleges are constructed from this honey-coloured Cotswold stone.

Getting the fireplace out and finally loading this on to my pick-up with Scott, had been hot and sweaty work lasting many hours. After it was all over, I had the strongest urge to jump into the lovely indoor swimming pool which was still full of water. A sort of "last chance" valedictory dampening. It's funny how demolition changes the rules, I would never normally think of taking such a liberty in a stranger's private house.

There is considerable irony is me trying to save a building in far worse condition than Coombe Edge, yet despite Coombe Edge being in perfect condition, it is the building being demolished. As well as talking, money often wants to build and even a pleasing existing 1899 £6 million structure cannot stand in the way. 

But to put this demolition in perspective, I am better off by a beautiful fireplace. :-)

Monday 10 November 2014

In Spate

new landscape at bottom of glen

It felt like it was raining all last Thursday night, and during that evening water breached the upper floor of Balintore Castle in about 5 locations. That's the problem with roof repairs they tend to be ongoing.  :-( The next morning as I looked down into Glen Quharity, I was delighted that the landscape had changed. The Quharity Burn is pretty small and not generally visible from the castle except as a line in the landscape. That morning there were multiple channels gushing with water, multiple ox-bow lakes and much washed up earth. Perhaps, I could put the leaks down to exceptional conditions rather than problems with the roof itself? Examining the wet areas of the castle with my builder, it seemed possible that much of the water ingress was simply huge volumes of water coming down the chimneys.

the path in front of the castle had turned into a river

I took Rascal, my builder's Jack Russell, for a walk to examine the damage. We went to the stone bridge at the bottom of the glen, where the Dairy Burn flows into the Quharity Burn. The Dairy Burn comes from the castle direction and was carrying a lot of mud: it seemed particularly swollen. After the two burns had joined, you could see the flows were still separate, the brown ribbon on the left hand side continued for some distance.

the Dairy Burn in spate

the Quharity Burn in spate
confluence of Dairy and Quarity Burns - double the spate!
note the flows remain separate for quite some distance

Saturday 18 October 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Seven

This is the seventh and last blog entry describing the seven places of interest visited on a West Highland road trip earlier in the year. The last place of interest visited was Ardnamuchan Point. As Andrew and I were leaving Mingary Castle for home, we saw the brown sign saying Ardnamuchan Point was only 5 miles away. We had come this far, so on a total whim we decided to go for it.

Ardnamuchan Point, beloved of the Radio 4 "Shipping Forecast", is the most westerly point in Britain - in short legendary! Common sense would seem to suggest Land's End in Cornwall is the most westerly party of the British mainland, but in fact it is 20 miles further to the east.

the very bleak and very westerly Ardnamuchan Point

Ardnamuchan is bleak and while not inaccessible, the road is sufficient tricky, that getting there seemed to take an age. Not for the first time Andrew and I asked ourselves "What are we doing here?". In fact a lot of the driving in the Western Highlands was similar. While the distances were not huge, the slow running on the roads make all trips seems like an odyssey. The roads went up and down and wound side to side. I recall passing one "Blind Summit" sign. This normally means just taking extra care. However, this summit was so blind that once at the top neither of us could see the road dropping down beneath us. And much like a high-octane roller-coaster ride, we both screamed involuntarily and in synchrony.

Ardnamuchan Point has a lighthouse (1849) and a foghorn, and while a lighthouse is not a castle, there are similarities. Castles and lighthouses both have towers; both are built solidly; both are often built in stunning locations; and both are often interesting architecturally. Ardnamuchan is no exception and the building style is Egyptian Revival, and indeed the material is granite, of which the Ancient Egyptians themselves were rather fond.

Egyptian Revival lighthouse buildings
The engineering infrastructure for the foghorn is amazing. Diesel engines drive air-pumps. The pressurised air is collected in large metal tanks. These tanks are connected by a pipe to a small building right on the coast, which contains extra gubbins, before feeding through to the massive red foghorn itself. Andrew was in his vintage engineering element, and even I have to admit that the set-up was a steampunk's dream.

lighthouse and foghorn

Andrew provides scale for the foghorn

(timing?) gubbins inside foghorn building

 gubbins inside foghorn building

 warning on foghorn building door

room with air pumps

Arriving at and leaving from Ardnamurchan Point was slowed down considerably by the lengthy last section of road which is single track with no passing places. Andrew and I had to wait at the traffic lights at both ends for a considerable time.  While waiting to leave, I took this image because I rather liked the serpentining road ahead leading homewards.

leaving Ardnamurchin: traffic lights and serpentining road
Looking back, the mini road trip had many of the hallmarks of insanity, but I am so pleased to have done it. Thanks to Andrew for driving and indulging the insanity. I returned re-invigorated and re-motivated for Balintore's restoration.

the 36 m lighthouse tower

Friday 17 October 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Six

The main target of this year's mini road trip was Castle Stalker. It is only open on a few days of the year and had to be booked in advance. The secondary target was Mingary Castle. I had never expected to visit Mingary as it is so remote. However, it is only a little bit further into the wilderness than Castle Stalker, so it made total sense to visit it on the same trip.

Mingary Castle is currently undergoing an impressive restoration which is the main reason I wanted to visit. There are warnings on the excellent blog that there is no access to the public, so I wrote a number of times to the author of the blog to ask how I would set about getting permission. There was no reply, so the fairly long drive to Mingary could well have turned out to be a wild goose chase. My friend Andrew did the driving, and I don't know how many times I apologised to him in advance about the possible failure of the mission.

Things did not bode well as the road to the castle was labelled with a sign "no vehicles and no access to castle". Some lateral thinking was required. I suggested that as the castle was on the coast, all we needed to do was somehow get to the coast and follow it round. We passed the castle and drove into the tiny village of Kilchoan. This had a small tourist office/community centre. I asked about access to the castle at the tourist office, I was told categorically there was none. The community centre had leaflets on the castle, and a perspex collection box raising funds for the restoration. The contents of the box were not inconsiderable, perhaps I should take a hint from this? :-)

Andrew and I left the car in the community centre car park. We walked to the harbour, where a ferry was disembarking. I strode off along the beach to the left, the direction we had come from. Surely at some stage I must encounter a castle? Andrew lagged behind, and seemed far less keen to jump over rock pools and climb along cliffs, where there was no beach or where vegetation made going along the flat impossible. I asked Andrew if he was OK but he is very stoic; said nothing; and kept going at his own pace. I found out afterwards his shoes did not have a proper grip. We were scrambling over wet rock surfaces.  Mind you, my trainers seemed no better than his! :-)

Andrew hesitantly navigating rock pools - Kilchoan ferry in background

After an absolute age we finally chanced on the castle. I had considered inwardly giving up a number of times. The castle is absolutely wreathed in scaffolding. In the flesh this is quite astounding, and I had never quite got the scale of the engineering undertaking from the photos on the blog.

Mingarry Castle: approaching the building

I had wanted to talk to someone at the castle about the work going on, but this would involve revealing ourselves as trespassers. I figured we should have a look around first before we got caught. There were at least 10 workmen, and on the principle of "diffusion of responsibility" I figured they would do nothing when (inevitably) we would be spotted. Often people at the coal face are far less "precious" about permission or lack of it, as that is a bureaucratic creation. Andrew and I had a good scramble around. The rock the castle is situated on is the very definition of vertiginous. Half of the beach below the castle is a massive single slab of hard rock: more or less flat but on a considerable incline. An amazing natural phenomenon. This is ideal for boat access to the castle, but to walk across it was absolutely treacherous:  the surface was covered in generic wet beach slime and seaweed! We tried to find safe paths across it where there was a little washed-up sand.

Mingary Castle: up close and personal

Andrew standing by scaffolding for scale

We then boldly climbed up to the work yard. There was a fence around it but we skirted round this to the main entrance and made our way to the site foreman's portakabin. There we met Mr. Thompson of the restoration contractor Ashley Thompson Ltd. He was extraordinarily generous is giving Andrew and myself his time, and telling us about the restoration. One of the major problems is remoteness. The workmen have to live on site in caravans and are away from their family and friends for months at a time with NO personal internet access! Mr. Thompson indicated there was just one place on the building site with some Internet access. The Ardnamurchan Estate who are behind the restoration supply the oak from their forests for the timber construction, and will eventually supply the firewood for the newly built detached boiler house which will heat the castle. Oh to be able to supply my own wood at Balintore! :-) This generates 90% of the material sourcing issues.

a hive of activity - note on-site caravans for accommodation

Ashley Thompson Ltd were behind the most well known "Grand Designs" restoration projection, which was the peel tower/castle in Yorkshire. Most people I speak to have this down as their favourite. It's mine too! Mr. Thompson talked about being 6 months behind schedule at Mingarry due to the weather: the site is incredibly exposed and there are many times where any work is impossible. I mentioned that Balintore Castle was an unspecified number of years behind schedule: the important thing being just to carry on. :-)

I asked Mr. Thompson who writes the Mingary blog, as it is incredibly well-written and updated as regular as clockwork once a week,  Mr. Thompson revealed it is written by an author and journalist who lives nearby. I can only hope, given the erratic scheduling and erratic English of my blog, that the author gets paid so I can excuse my shortcomings as those of an amateur!

All in all, I think Mingary is my favourite restoration project. It is a shame that Andrew and I could not wangle internal access, but it is a busy building site so you could tell there was no way just by looking at the situation. I recall pathetically asking if I could help with the pointing as a way of getting on-site. This is an ongoing and mind-numbingly time-consuming task.

main entrance of castle

It is incredibly rare for permission to be given to restore such an old and historically significant structure. I only wish it happened more often. The work being done at the castle has saved the building - the vast rock underneath was splitting and had to be pinned: a major engineering challenge in itself. I cannot imagine how much money has been spent - if only Balintore had the same budget. The work being done at present is of the highest quality, with many workmen on site full-time pushing the building forward. Since Andrew and I visited a roof has been put on the castle: a magnificent building is now emerging from the magnificent ruins. 

impressive scaffolding round less accessible side of castle

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Fireplace Archaeology II !

Following on from my previous blog entry, I finally started scraping away at the layers of paint on the reclaimed fireplace I had bought on eBay. The aim was to find out its history. The fact that sections of an expensive red marble lay under a layer of black paint was puzzling and indicated that it had a more flamboyant and more expensive past. :-)

Anyhow I chose two flat sections of the fireplace to start scraping. One was on the left hand jamb, and the other was in the corresponding position on the right-hand jamb. Removing an initial square centimetre of black paint from each, showed both had the same red marble underneath. I couldn't resist completing the sections. At least if revealing all the marble proved too much work,  working on these two smaller sections would result in a symmetric end result.

The section on the left jamb revealed the expected and attractive speckled marble pattern.

section of expensive marble revealed on left-hand jamb

The section on the right jamb revealed a much plainer patch of an orange/red colour. I did not expect this. Perhaps there were variations in the marble's patterning? The odd thing was that two layers of paint seemed to have come off this jamb. The black layer on top, and then a browny layer underneath. In fact, the brown layer had half stayed on and half come off, so I scraped away vigorously at the remaining brown areas, but all the colour seemed to disappear and I ended up with the grey of .... slate! Was the expensive marble just a paint effect - surely not - it was so hard, glossy and authentic looking.

something not quite right is revealed in same area on right-hand jamb

The only solution was to start scraping at a hidden surface, where I could do no damage, at an area that was unambiguously the expensive marble. To my shock a top "pock-marked" purple layer came off, and then an underlying bright red layer came off, before I finally came to the slate.

revealed - marble is actually a sophisticated multi-layered paint effect!

This was nothing less than an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layer and convincing marble effect. A red coat was applied, then the piece was dipped, I would suggest, in a purple oil-based paint laced with water droplets - in a similar manner to marbling paper. The resulting effect was a myriad of red splodges showing through, just like a naturally occurring mineral.

I have seen sections of various painted marbles in the V&A from Victorian times and they are utterly convincing. In fact there was even a society of marble painters. And this paint effect marble on my own fireplace had me totally fooled until I did the scraping.

This begs the question of what do I do now to the fireplace? I am quite tempted to leave these red sections to show the history. Should I try to reveal any more? The grey painted marble roundel in the cross piece is so obviously wrong that I will definitely return this to the original black, so the gold painted carvings will show up advantageously. Apart from this and just restoring a deep black where required, I may just leave alone. 

However, the mystery of its past has been solved. Much of the fireplace had been originally painted in a vivid red faux marble that would have contrasted marvellously with the black slate and gold-inlaid carvings. It would have been simply stunning, and if only I had the ability to do this paint effect again. These Victorian skills, I fear, are now largely lost to us. 

However, tastes change and a later generation must have considered the bold Victorian effect vulgar, and the whole thing was toned down, but with considerably less art and much less skill. The red marble was painted over because, one presumes, it was known to be "just" a paint effect. There is much Philistinism, where the destruction of art and beauty masquerades as improvement.