Mural Restoration

Prior to the major conservation between 2003 and 2005, Phoebe Anna Traquair’s mural scheme had suffered as a direct consequence of the poor maintenance of the building over an extended period of time.

Damp penetrated the building in many places and while emergency measures carried out in the 1990s by conservation staff from Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) prevented significant paint loss, structurally the scheme was in need of specialist attention.

Although the artist’s original technique was fundamentally sound, there were areas of weak plaster, insecure paint and applied decoration scattered throughout. In addition to the isolated loss of adhesion between layers caused by water ingress, the legibility and indeed appreciation of this remarkable scheme was also significantly impeded by layers of discoloured varnish and a century’s accumulation of surface dirt. Another factor was the migration of salts from the wall due to long periods of increased humidity. This caused a disfiguring efflorescence to develop on the painted surface. In short, aesthetically, the appearance of murals failed to do justice to the artist’s extraordinary achievement.

The conservation treatment
From the outset, a comprehensive and systematic examination took place by the team of conservators in order to devise a safe and effective plan of action. This had to be adjusted and reviewed continuously just as the artist herself had adapted her technique over the eight or so years she spent working in the space.

The Historic Scotland-funded project was lengthy and involved a small team of conservators, interns and students. To summarise, the different stages of the conservation treatment were as follows:

  • Surface dirt removal
    This is a prerequisite to any conservation treatment and allowed the condition of the paint surface to be inspected in detail and at close quarters. Dry and wet methods were used to removed dust and ingrained grime.
  • Consolidation of weak plaster and insecure paint
    This was a painstaking and time-consuming process requiring several different approaches depending on the condition of the area, the materials used by the artist, also its previous conservation history. Both natural, lime-based as well as synthetic (acrylic-based) adhesives were used to strengthen the plaster. Dilute solutions were injected with syringes into weak areas avoiding the painted decoration as far as possible. Insecure areas of paint were similarly treated with a combination of different techniques ranging from a commonly used synthetic, heat-seal adhesive to traditional aqueous methods, depending on the possible access for the adhesive and the sensitivity of the paint film.
  • Varnish removal
    Following a series of trials, the degraded varnish layer was successfully thinned using a number of hydrocarbon solvent solutions. Again, the method varied depending on the area of decoration being treated, its behaviour and history. A thin layer of what may possibly be the artist’s original varnish application was left in place. A fresh layer of natural resin-based varnish was then brushed on to the paint surface. This was intended to saturate the paint layer and to separate the following stages of the conservation treatment from the artist’s own execution.
  • Filling areas of plaster and paint loss, recreating missing areas of the decoration and raised work
    Areas of loss to both plaster and paint layers were filled primarily using a lime-based putty in order to provide an even surface to carry out the final inpainting.
  • Inpainting
    The inpainting was carried out in a two-phase system. Firstly, watercolours were used to match as far as possible the surrounding colour. Locally varnished, these areas were then completed with an upper glaze of pigments ground in a varnish resin. Much of the restoration was applied as a series of adjacent dots designed to merge by the eye from a distance but easily distinguishable from Traquair’s own hand when seen at close quarters. Every stage of the inpainting is reversible so can be easily removed in the future, if necessary.
  • Re-varnishing
    Finally, a matte solution of the same varnish used earlier was applied very thinly and by cloth to complete the treatment and emulate the matte surface aesthetic the artist favoured. This both saturated the colours while also functioning as an important protective layer.

Ongoing maintenance

The Mansfield Traquair Trust is responsible for ensuring that the building is well maintained on a regular basis in the hope that the mural scheme will survive, remain accessible and be enjoyed for many generations to come. To this end, the environment is closely monitored and every five years a thorough survey of the condition of the mural scheme is commissioned from specialist wall paintings conservators. Any remedial work identified during this check is then carried out in a timely manner. The Trust raises funds to cover the cost of any conservation treatment required and the Friends of Mansfield Traquair Centre make a sizeable contribution to that. In doing so the Friends play an invaluable part in securing the future of this splendid building and its astonishing decorative scheme.

For a detailed account of the project see:

Fiona Allardyce and Rosemary Mann, Conservation of Phoebe Anna Traquair Murals at Mansfield Traquair Centre Edinburgh, Case Study 1 published by the Technical Conservation, Research and Education Group, Historic Scotland (2007)

ISBN 978 1 904966 50 0

Mural restoration

Mural restoration