Conserving Crathes Castle’s painted ceilings

The project involved extensive remedial conservation work to secure the rare, 17th-century painted ceilings for future generations.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has successfully completed a conservation project launched to restore and protect the 17th-century painted ceilings at Crathes Castle near Banchory, Aberdeenshire, thanks to a £250,000 Annual Repair Grant funded by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Crathes Castle, Abderdeenshire. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Christine Jewell.

Karen Dundas, Accredited Wall Painting Conservator, said: ‘The work that we have done at Crathes was an extremely delicate procedure as we’re dealing with over 400 years of history and various levels of intervention.

‘In spaces where early decoration survives unaltered, it was thrilling to see original designs and colours come to life as we very carefully secured and cleaned the paintings to reinstate their full glory.’

Crathes Castle was completed by Alexander Burnett in the 16th-century, on land granted to the Burnett family in 1323 by Robert the Bruce, and continued to serve as the ancestral seat of the Burnetts of Leys until 1951 when it was donated to the NTS.

Michal Wachucik Karen Dundas (pictured), an accredited wall painting conservator, and her colleagues are carrying out extensive remedial conservation work on the Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings preserved in four rooms at Crathes Castle. IMAGE: Michal Wachucik/Abermedia

The castle comprises an intricate maze of towers and turrets, and contains some of the few remaining examples of Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings.

Completed at the start of the 17th-century, the paintings quickly fell out of fashion and were covered over. It appears that when they were rediscovered in the 1870s during refurbishment works, Victorian conservators attempted to clean some of the paintings – which were created with distemper paint made from animal glue, chalk, and pigment – using water, and so damaged the original organic paintwork.

Investigations in 1959 revealed that the original pigments were carbon black, lead white, and brown and red ochre – far more muted than the vivid colours applied by the Victorians.

Michal Wachucik The painted ceiling in the Room of the Nine Nobles depicts medieval and Classical figures including Julius Caesar. IMAGE: Michal Wachucik/Abermedia.

Due to the combined effects of fluctuating temperature and humidity, seasonal movement of timbers, and regular visitor footfall, the paintings require continual specialist care. This project, carried out as part of the NTS’ ten-year Nature, Beauty, & Heritage for Everyone strategy, involved extensive remedial conservation work to secure them for the future.

Karen and her colleagues worked across four rooms, applying a weak gelatine solution to sections of flaking paint to hold them in place, before fixing them with a stronger adhesive mixture. Areas of loss were retouched with water-based paint.

Starting in the Stair Chamber – a small, white-painted room, accessible through a narrow stairway – the team restored the remaining small patches of the original frieze, as well as the biblical text adorning the timber ceiling beams.

Michal Wachucik Conservators have repaired sections of flaking paint and used water-based paint to restore areas of loss. IMAGE: Michal Wachucik/Abermedia

The work continued in the Room of the Nine Nobles, where depictions of Classical, Old Testament, and Christian heroes dressed in medieval armour – among them Julius Caesar, King David, and Charlemagne – adorn the ceilings, along with shields bearing heraldic imagery and text along the beams describing each noble and their deeds.

Paint samples were collected throughout the project for laboratory analysis which, it is hoped, will shed light on the materials, pigments, and techniques employed throughout the castle’s evolution.