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