The cleaning of the Nash Staircase is going well and has revealed lots of exciting information. The staircase was designed and built by John Nash for Thomas, 2nd Lord Berwick as part of the re-modelling of the centre of the house between 1805 and 1807.
The bright red fluted walls may have been intended to imitate flowing canvas or tent drapery. The lower walls have a paint effect to imitate porphyry stone and the whole space is enhanced with rich gilding. The ceiling is domed with a painted glass lantern in the centre and fish-scale tiles flowing down to give the ceiling a dynamic texture.
As part of the ‘Through the Roof’ project we have the opportunity to study the fish scale ceiling in detail. This remarkable decoration shows excellent craftsmanship and design; making clear that no expense was being spared. We know that Lord Berwick was certainly very extravagant in his spending!
The 11,550 tiles are made of plaster and individually cast in moulds. The size of the tiles and their placing must have been carefully calculated as they fit exactly around the inside of the dome, with the same amount of tiles in every row, slowly diminishing in size towards the top. Measuring the width of the tiles tells us that 12 different sized tiles (and moulds) were used, each one just 1/8th of an inch smaller than the former.
We were keen to learn more about the original colour of the fish scales and so we sent off a paint sample for examination under a microscope and carried out some solvent tests. This has revealed that the tiles were originally painted in a light pink colour and have only been repainted once.
The second paint layer is a cool cream colour and has been applied over the dirty original paint. Over the years, this second coat of paint has also been covered by a thick layer of dirt, leaving the fish scales looking very grey and dull. The amount of dirt on the tiles, gilding and red fluted walls has only became clear during a small cleaning test by paint conservator, Annabelle Monaghan, revealing the former brightness of the colours.
We are now two weeks into cleaning the fish scales and Annabelle is being assisted by Annemieke Heuft, a post-graduate conservation student from the Netherlands. So far they have cleaned almost half of the 11,550 tiles. Already the difference is spectacular, but the nineteenth-century splendor will only be fully revealed when the work on the glass lantern and other painted surfaces is complete.