Signing Off: Hidden signatures of talented craftsmen discovered across the Midlands.

The initial IN and the date 1808 carved into the picture gallery at Attingham

As a Curator, I am frequently involved in projects to restore and re-decorate historic structures and interiors. In the process, you get up close and personal with the buildings, by carrying out research into their original construction and repair history.

By doing paint analysis you literally get under the structures’ skin by deciphering the layers of decorative history. It’s like forensic investigations of a crime scene where you are looking for clues. 

Usually, this evidence is best preserved higher up, where paint layers and evidence is less likely to have been tampered with or damaged. So you need to get up on scaffold, steps or cherry-pickers to access those areas away from ground level. Higher up is also often where the final touches are made to a structure, such as the lead roof, or a decorative finial, like the cherry on a cake. 

We need some assistance to clean the hard to reach places
Man on scaffolding cleaning the roof of Wallington in Cheshire
We need some assistance to clean the hard to reach places

If you are lucky, you will sometimes come across the signature of the craftsman and the date they finished, which is vital evidence. They are proudly yet discreetly ‘signing-off’ as they put the finishing touches to their work. Unlike the signature of an artist who visibly signs his oil painting, craftsmen’s signatures are less obvious, often high up and incorporated into the material they were working on. They are left as an almost invisible testimony to their skill and craftsmanship, waiting to be discovered. It’s only when we re-visit these normally inaccessible places, in order to carry out restoration, that these signatures are found. 

Attingham Park

Father and son

Two signatures are disguised in the painted decorative scheme of Attingham's Entrance Hall. George Barrett Junior, signed his name high up in the marbling on the wall, almost indecipherable from the ground. He signed again, along with his father William, in 1812 on the lintel of the doorframe.

Can you spot the signature of Geogre Barrett Jnr?
The signature of George Barrett Jnr in the marbleling at Attingham
Can you spot the signature of Geogre Barrett Jnr?

Continuing the tradition

In the Octagon Room is a more recent date of 1972 when the decorators’ recorded their work above the cornice. In 2007, when we returned the room to its dramatic Regency paint scheme, we asked the decorator Paul Knibb to leave this evidence unpainted and to sign off his work so that his signature too, in time, would also be discovered.

We've asked our current craftsmen to carry on the tradition
Signatures of the conservators from 2007 in the Octogan  room at Attingham
We've asked our current craftsmen to carry on the tradition

Top Architect

One of the most exciting examples I have found is high up in Attingham’s Picture Gallery on the capital of a column: ‘IN 1808’. This room was created by Regency architect John Nash, who later worked on Brighton Pavilion and Buckingham Palace. He finished his work at Attingham in 1808, so this could be him, JN, signing-off his work (as in the Roman alphabet ‘I’ was often used for ‘J’).

More to be found at Shugborough Estate

Shugborough’s Triumphal Arch has ‘Richard Gilbert 1766’ in the lead capping right at the top, the date around which the structure was finished. We have an on-going programme of works for Shugborough’s neo-classical structures, so will be on the lookout for more of these discoveries. One such appears to be the initials ‘SL’ and the date ‘1782’ carefully hammered into the lead roof of the Tower of the Winds.

SL 1782 in the marble on the Tower of the Winds
SL 1782 engraved on the marble of the Tower of the Winds at Shugborough
SL 1782 in the marble on the Tower of the Winds

The decorators of Biddulph Grange and Gardens 

As we are restoring a ‘lost’ Victorian decorative scheme in the Drawing Room at Biddulph Grange, we have found two signatures of their top decorator H. Sholz and the date 1874. If you have brilliant eye sight, one can be seen on the domed ceiling and one concealed in painted trellis work and foliage.

Benthall Hall’s Church

On the roof of Benthall Church’s Civil War- Restoration period church, the name and date ‘C. Smith 1826’ is hammered into the leadwork from when this element must have been repaired.

If you look very carefully, you will be able to see C Smith 1826
C Smith 1826 carved into the roof of Benthal's church
If you look very carefully, you will be able to see C Smith 1826

I love it when these names from the past are found because you don’t know they’re there and it’s a tingling feeling to discover them. They bring us into direct and very tangible contact with these often faceless people who are not as celebrated or well-known as the architect or designer. And yet they were the ones who actually carried out the work and left their mark accordingly.

Hardwick stonemason carving letters in the flagstone

Caring for our buildings 

From grand stately homes to hidden follies, no two buildings are the same and each needs specialist care and maintenance. Without your support we simply wouldn't be able to do it. Take a look at some of the amazing projects we have going on here in the Midlands.