Over the past few weeks the scaffolding in the Picture Gallery has allowed us to access new heights in the Mansion! The scaffolding has also been assembled in the adjoining Nash Staircase, getting us up close to the high spaces in there too.
These grand stairs were part of Nash’s redevelopment scheme at Attingham 1805-07. In deciding to put the Gallery at the very centre of the house, John Nash made some radical alterations to the existing layout of the 1st Lord Berwick’s Palladian Mansion… most crucially wiping away the main staircase.
The Entrance Hall we all know today would have looked quite different before Nash and 2nd Lord Berwick began to alter the house in 1805. Firstly it would have been a different, lighter colour… the current marble paint scheme was commissioned by 2nd Lord Berwick.
There was also a second fireplace in the room, standing on the wall opposite the remaining one to keep the Palladian symmetry, but this was removed at the same time to create stairs down to the basement for the servants to use.
Most noticeably however, the room would have been much bigger! When you walked in the front door the hall would not stop at the wall opposite as it does now, it would have extended behind the green scagiola pillars and revealed a grand staircase beyond. This staircase was removed by Nash and the space used to create the present Picture Gallery.
However, taking away this staircase left Nash with a problem, there was now no main route up to the first floor rooms. As part of his designs therefore Nash included his own grand staircase; the Nash Stairs we know today.
The cast iron dome which lights this staircase in dramatic fashion is also a part of the conservation work planned for the Attingham Re-discovered goes Through the Roof project. Although this dome has been altered slightly over the years, it has the same issues of condensation build-up and water ingress as the Picture Gallery it joins to. Water leaking through has caused damage to the historic fabric of the mahogany handrail below. It therefore has also had scaffolding put up to protect the space and visitors as work goes on above.
This space has some of the fantastic internal decoration which Nash brought to Attingham, and the scaffolding gives the team the opportunity to get up close to it and begin to answer the questions surrounding what conservation work is to be done.
One of the most eye-catching and unusual features of Nash’s design is the fish scales which adorn the domed ceiling. We thought before that these may have been put up in sections but can now see that each scale is individually applied! Our curator Sarah says
“They are a bit like mini roof tiles, laid one on top of the other in graduating sizes, again like roof tiles which get smaller towards the top. They range from about 4.5 inches high at the bottom to about two inches at the top. Incredibly precisely and accurately applied so your eye does not notice a jump in size anywhere. You can follow any diagonal line across them as they ‘swirl’ upwards and across the concave surface of the dome and the line is perfect. It is so far a mystery as to how this perfection would have been achieved…”
perhaps you have an idea as to how the Regency craftsmen would have achieved this feat?
Cleaning trials have also revealed different colour schemes underneath years of dirt. I’ve always thought of the tiles as being a greyish colour, but as you can see from this picture the paint below is more creamy, although this may not be the first scheme.
Investigations on the fluted plaster walls of this circular space have also revealed that years of dirt sit above the red paint scheme but that this responds well to gentle conservation cleaning.
Carrying out conservation work on the interior of the Nash stairs and picture Gallery will form the second phase of work of the Through the Roof Project over the next two years. We are spending this time now carrying out investigations of the historic fabric as it is important to know what we have and what condition it is in before any decisions are made as to how to conserve it. Through seeing up close what John Nash and his craftsmen created, and understanding what effect time has had on their work, we can know the significance of what it is we are working with today. This helps us make the best decisions so that the historic fabric will be here for another 200 years and continue to be a part of the story of Love and Neglect of Attingham!