A closer look: what we learn from conservation photography

Published: 30 July 2019

Last update: 30 July 2019

Blog post
This blog post is written by Lorna Scott, Collections Conservation Documentation Officer Lorna Scott Collections Conservation Documentation Officer
Motifs based on snow crystals

Lorna Scott works as a conservation documentation officer, helping to create a permanent record of the conservation work undertaken on our collection items and historic interiors. She spends her days immersed in the beauty and intricacies of our rich and varied collections, all while working entirely at Heelis, the head office of the National Trust in Swindon.

I am one of a small team working on a project to capture the visual and textual records collected during the care and treatment of objects and interiors in our historic buildings and gardens. It's vital that we know what previous work and research has been undertaken in the past, so that we can best plan, prioritise and specify future conservation work. Conservation documentation is at the heart of this.

My specific role is to carefully, accurately and gradually work through the thousands of photographs taken as part of previous conservation work on objects within our collections.

I have the (un)enviable task of identifying, uploading and cataloguing appropriate images to illustrate what the objects look like before conservation, what specific treatments are undertaken and what the objects look like afterwards. With strict guidelines to follow and multiple databases and systems to deal with, it's a complex process made rewarding by the wonderful objects I get to see on a daily basis.

" It's a complex process made rewarding by the wonderful objects I get to see on a daily basis"
- Lorna Scott

Last month, I tackled a veritable treasure trove of images documenting the 2005-6 conservation of the wall paintings in the Central Hall at Wallington, Northumberland. With the conservator's treatment report to assist me, I worked my way through over 700 photographs that documented in vibrant, resplendent detail the work that was carried out.

The East Front of Wallington, Northumberland

Wallington, Northumberland

Wallington was the much-loved home to generations of the Trevelyan family. Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, a local landowner and philanthropist, made the entrance on the east side of the house in the early 1740s.

The Central Hall, designed by John Dobson of Newcastle and built in 1853-4, at Wallington, Northumberland

The Central Hall at Wallington

In 1856 the artist William Bell Scott was commissioned to decorate the Central Hall with colourful and vibrant murals of Northumbrian history.

Never having been to Wallington, I was eager to learn more about it. I soon learned that the Central Hall was designed in the early 1850s to enclose what was originally an open central courtyard. Then, in 1856, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan and his wife, Paulina (Pauline), Lady Trevelyan, commissioned William Bell Scott to decorate the new Hall with a series of wall paintings, namely 'to illuminate the history and worthies of Northumbria'. 

Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan (left) and Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (right) commissioned William Bell Scott to decorate Wallington's Central Hall / oval paintings on metal, British school, NT 584458
Oval portraits of the Trevelyans
Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan (left) and Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (right) commissioned William Bell Scott to decorate Wallington's Central Hall / oval paintings on metal, British school, NT 584458

Scott (no known relation!) was a disciple of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Meanwhile, Pauline, Lady Trevelyan had invited members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to stay at Wallington, including John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, Thomas Woolner and Alexander Munro.

Scott painted eight tableaux on large canvases (about 1.87m square); these are situated on the south and north walls of the Hall. Following the inspiration of the former open courtyard, Scott planned a lower tier of naturalistic flowers and plants on the piers. The lower spandrels (the triangular space between the top of an arch and the rectangular moulding above) in the next tier reflected the renaissance style of the hall and Scott painted roundels featuring eminent Northumbrians surrounded by local birdlife and trees.

View of the Central Hall, Wallington

View of the Central Hall, Wallington

The Central Hall was once an open courtyard and so Scott took his cue from nature, designing a tier of naturalistic flowers and plants on the piers.

Medallion portrait of George Stephenson

Eminent Northumbrians

A roundel portrait depicts Northumbrian railway pioneer, George Stephenson, renowned as the 'Father of the Railways', against a sycamore tree with bullfinches.

For the final upper tier of spandrels, Scott was commissioned in 1863 to illustrate the border ballad of 'Chevy Chase' which itself commemorates the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. In between these tiers were the skirting, inscriptions, friezes and mouldings, all decorated to compliment the rest of the walls. The paintings are in oil, some with gilt, on canvas, paper, plaster and stone. 

'King Egfrid and St Cuthbert', the second in a series of eight oil paintings illustrating the history of the English Border (before conservation) by William Bell Scott, 1856
King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine persuade Cuthbert to be made Bishop, one of a series of eight oil paintings by William Bell Scott
'King Egfrid and St Cuthbert', the second in a series of eight oil paintings illustrating the history of the English Border (before conservation) by William Bell Scott, 1856

Scott wasn’t alone in his painting of the walls. Pauline, Lady Trevelyan was a gifted artist and much of her work can be seen on the flower piers and in the Eminent Northumbrians background. She persuaded John Ruskin to paint a flower pier and paintings were also done by Laura Capel Lofft (subsequently Walter Trevelyan’s second wife), Arthur Hughes, Edith Mary Dorothy Collingwood and Emilia Pattinson. 

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (1816–1866), Oriental poppy, painted pier on the South Wall of Central Hall
Painting of Oriental Poppy
Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (1816–1866), Oriental poppy, painted pier on the South Wall of Central Hall

It is this wonderful, eclectic mix of styles, within the overall scheme, that is clearly illustrated in the photographs I worked through.

One of the joys of a good conservator undertaking a large treatment project is that they often can, and do, photograph many different aspects and close ups.

Conservator at work in the Central Hall at Wallington
Conservator at work in the central hall at Wallington
Conservator at work in the Central Hall at Wallington

These views can show a perspective normally only available to those working closely with an object and in this case, whilst working from scaffolding. So, while documenting this conservation project, I was able to look closely at the different monograms of the painters who contributed to the decorative scheme:   

Composite of artists' monograms. From left to right: John Ruskin; Laura Capel Lofft; William Bell Scott; Pauline, Lady Trevelyan; Arthur Hughes; Edith Collingwood
composite image of artist monograms
Composite of artists' monograms. From left to right: John Ruskin; Laura Capel Lofft; William Bell Scott; Pauline, Lady Trevelyan; Arthur Hughes; Edith Collingwood

I was able to revel in the scrupulous detail of floral and geometric motifs: 

Precisely painted motifs on the stone surface
Motifs based on snow crystals
Precisely painted motifs on the stone surface

I could inspect the layering and application of paint:

Close-up of flowers showing brushstrokes and layers of paint
close up of painted flowers
Close-up of flowers showing brushstrokes and layers of paint

I even came face to face with majestic beasts:

Detail of stag in the west spandrel depicting the Ballad of Chevy Chase
Detail of stag
Detail of stag in the west spandrel depicting the Ballad of Chevy Chase

This comprehensive conservation project is now fully recorded  – an important and unique record of the context, creation and conservation of the paintings in Wallington's Central Hall. Surely this is worth all my current effort and of benefit to many now and in the future? I think so!