Saving Cragside’s Victorian fireplace

‘If untreated, the fireplace could crumble quickly.’

At the National Trust-owned stately home of Cragside, Northumberland, urgent conservation work is underway to save a spectacular 19th-century fireplace, which has suffered water damage as a result of climate change bringing longer and wetter winters.

Cragside was the Victorian home of Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong, and the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity. Its ornately furnished Drawing Room, designed by renowned architect Richard Norman Shaw, once entertained the Shah of Persia, and the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

The pièce de résistance of the Drawing Room is the 10-tonne, 6-metre-high fireplace, exquisitely constructed in Italian marble and alabaster.  It was designed by William Lethaby, the Chief Assistant of Richard Norman Shaw, and an influential architect in the Art and Crafts Movement.  It was completed in 1884.

Colin Davison Photography Work to stabilise the Italian marble fireplace at the National Trust’s Cragside in Northumberland following damage to the house by water, the result of climate change. Conservator Alex Rickett climbing scaffolding to inspect the fireplace chimney breast, while Chloe Stewart carries out masonry repairs inside the inglenook. Photo: Tom Carr/National Trust.

In recent years, however, climate change has had an adverse effect on the structural integrity of the fireplace.  An increase in heavy downpours has overwhelmed Cragside’s Victorian drains, and forced rainwater into the house.

‘We noticed recently that the fireplace is showing significant signs of salt efflorescence, which is when salts begin to appear on the surface of the stone or plasterwork. It is caused by moisture moving through the stone and then evaporating. When the salt builds up in the “pores” of the material, it ultimately breaks apart,’ explained Cragside Property Curator Clara Woolford. ‘If untreated, the fireplace could crumble quickly.’

To stabilise the marble and plaster, conservators are using lime-mortar fillers, consisting of calcium hydroxide suspended in an alcohol solution, to soak the marble and bind it together.

The National Trust plans to carry out a survey to identify and repair the routes of the rainwater, and mitigate future damage to the interior of Cragside.