Craftsmen restore country house to former glory: Sculptors use delicate skills to recreate rococo ceiling destroyed by fire. Oliver Gillie reports

THE piano nobile at Prior Park in Avon was once one of the finest sets of rooms in one of England's most splendid mansions. Now it is a mass of scaffolding. Corinthian pillars stand among steel poles and a builder's ladder provides the only access to the gallery from where, in the 18th century, Alexander Pope used to admire the view of Bath in the valley below.

A fire at Prior Park in 1991 destroyed most of the interior decoration and now a team of craftsmen are recreating panels of freehand plasterwork which decorated the ceiling of the piano nobile. At the same time, the central portion of the mansion, which is used as a Catholic secondary school, is being rebuilt while schoolwork continues in the stables and servants' quarters.

Temporary planking has been installed 12ft above the original floor of the gallery, making a strange room with curved walls in the cove just beneath the ceiling. The walls of the cove were originally hung with plaster panels decorated in the rococo style, with arabesques of fruit and leaves, and themes of gardening, hunting, music and war. Many of the panels were broken up in the fire and are now being reconstructed like large jigsaw puzzles.

The panels are believed to have been made originally for Hunstrete House, near Marksbury, Avon, and bought second-hand by Bishop Baines, who founded the Catholic school on the site.

The plasterwork had excited little interest until it was destroyed by the fire of 1991, so it was never properly photographed or recorded. Most of it was modelled freehand, although a few pre-cast elements were included. Now the plasterwork is being reconstructed by St Blaise, a company specialising in restoration, and the architects Ferguson Mann, from fragments and from the few photographs that have been found.

The 18th-century craftsmen who made the original panels used stucco made from lime mortar mixed with marble dust, a small amount of gypsum and animal glue. This produces a fine putty, which will remain soft for several hours in a large lump but sets within half an hour when modelled into smaller shapes.

Some panels were totally destroyed and must be entirely remodelled. Caspar Taylor and John Toffee, both sculptors, are producing the first new panel for approval.

'We have about half an hour to model an individual piece of encrustation before the stucco dries,' Mr Taylor said. 'It is completely different from modelling with clay. A clay model can be added to, or cut away, but stucco must be built up slowly. We can't pare it down if it is too large.'

This technique, imposed by the material, gives freehand decorative stucco work its special quality. The flowers, fruits and leaves are never exactly the same and panels, which seem at first to be symmetrical are, in fact, not exactly true.

Ian Constantinides, a director of St Blaise, said: 'Two modellers working from the same reference will produce work which differs in subtle ways. We have to maintain the element of freedom to produce spontaneous work but at the same time we are trying to produce exact copies.

'It is a difficult task. But this freehand work has so much more life in it than the cast work which became increasingly common during the 19th century.'

Some panels which were almost totally destroyed will have to be rebuilt using inspired guesswork. The St Blaise team hope to reconstruct these panels by copying from similar rococo plasterwork at Harewood House and Burton Constable House in Yorkshire. The work there is believed to be that of a craftsman called William Collins who is also thought to have been responsible for the work at Prior Park, or at least used the same patternbooks.

Finally the the plaster ground will be painted lilac, green, or a straw yellow, the original colours discovered by paint analysis. So the modelled stucco will appear as encrustations against the coloured ground.

'We are using skills which had been almost forgotten. During the 1950s and 1960s, restorations were done using modern techniques and by casting the decorative elements. The results were generally ghastly.

'Now there is an academic interest in getting it absolutely right and to do that we have gone back to using the original methods,' Mr Constantinides said.

(Photograph omitted)

Sport
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

Welcome to The Independent's live coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of the 2014 season that sees Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battle it out for the Drivers' Championship.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
News
Former civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Sport
Lewis Hamtilon and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg
SportShould F1's most aggressive driver curb his instincts in title decider?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin