Launceston Town Hall Crest restoration
The crest (or Coat of Arms) on the front of Launceston Town Hall have been looking a bit rough for a while, with crumbling stone and peeling paint, I was asked to do a bit of restoration and repainting.
The “New” Town Hall’s foundation stone was laid in 1886, with the building being completed the next year in a style known as “Gothic Revival“. A newspaper article celebrating the opening of the building states that Harry Hems completed a lot of stone carving on the front of the building. Harry was an enterprising sculptor and wood carver based in Exeter who completed a lot of work in churches and civic buildings around the area, and so I assume his workshop also produced the Crest.
The Coat of Arms was granted to Launceston (or Dunheved as it was then) in 1572. This image is clearly the one that the Sculptor used as the source. The colours, are generally dictated by Heraldic norms. The coat of arms was redrawn recently by Spurcroft-Civic for the purpose of uniting the Town Hall logo into an image suitable for Web, print etc. They kindly let me know the RGB values for the colours they used.
Interestingly, early (black and white) photographs seem to show that the Crest was originally unpainted, as this photo from 1939 (the Crest is right at the top of the picture) shows
I don’t know when the Crest started to be painted, but the earliest pictures I can find are from the 1950’s. During the stripping process it seems that the very first coat was a “salmon pink” coloured limewash over the whole piece.
Limewash is a soft, powdery “coating” that is very breathable, but not very long lasting and tends to get washed off by the rain over time. This probably led to the decision to paint the Crest with oil paint, which also meant a bit of heraldic colour could be added to the coat of arms.
Unfortunately, painting over limewash with an oil paint is not a good idea, as the paint is effectively sticking to the limewash rather than the sandstone underneath. Any moisture getting behind it will loosen the bond and the paint flakes off. This is the main reason for the existing peeling paint.
Subsequently, a range of greys and creamy whites had been used on the background, and various shades of red and blue on the coat of arms.
The underlying sandstone was also very crumbly. So much so, that pieces fell off into my hands as soon as I touched it. The problem is that the paints used were traditional oil paints which are relatively moisture impermeable. On a harder stone, this may not have been a problem. But the porous nature of the sandstone means that water soaked into it through cracks and peeling paint, but then could not dry out again. The freeze-thaw cycles during the winter have caused the sandstone to crack and “spall“.
The first job was to remove the paint. A test revealed that it was a lead based oil paint, so precautions had to be followed to ensure no dust was released and that all the waste was disposed of safely. The paint removal uncovered a few area’s that had been filled with Polyfiller which was removed.
As much of the Limewash was removed as possible, and the full extent of the damage could be seen. The Town Hall Crest was carved out of a fairly dark coloured sandstone.
Sandstone is a sedimentary stone laid down in layers – or strata, and on the Crest these layers are aligned vertically in the same plane as the wall. What this means is that where there is damage or weakness in the stone, it delaminates along the plane of the strata as can be seen on the upper left hand leaf. As previously noted, there was a fair bit of frost damage which literally crumbled away during the paint stripping. But also, larger pieces broke off along the delamination line. Pieces that came off but didn’t crumble away were stuck back on with “stone glue”.
Polyfiller was chipped out and replaced with a colour-matched stone repair mortar from Masons Mortar in Edinburgh. This was also used to reconstruct the frost damaged and missing parts of the carving. While lacking the finesse of the original, I think I was able to copy from the un-damaged parts a reasonable likeness of the original.
Worried about the continuing friability of the sandstone, I treated it with a liberal coat of Keim Silex OH, a specialised stone consolidant. Once this had cured I could start painting.
The choice of coating
There are some great examples of this sort of restoration like this one from Hirst Conservation. They have used a traditional lead-based paint which gives a great depth of colour and has a bit of a sheen. Unfortunately, the Town Hall’s Listed status (Grade 2) does not permit me to use lead based paint. I could have used a modern alternative which would have looked similar. But in either case, I am concerned about damage caused to the carving caused by moisture getting into the stone.
Mineral paints have many advantages over “normal” film forming paints, chiefly their breathability and longevity. The one disadvantage is that Keim Mineral paints are very matt in appearance, and don’t look at all like an oil paint. Keim suggested I give the paint a coat of their synthetic anti-graffiti wax which does give it a slight sheen.
The colours were chosen from the Keim colour-pallette as there was no opportunity to match the logo colours exactly. The main difference – and source of much angst on my part – is the choice of background colour for the Crest.
The original paint I had stripped off was almost white on the background. I felt this didn’t look right as there was no contrast with the white feathers on the Crest. It also makes the square look a bit stark against the surrounding state wall. So I took the decision to do the background in something similar to the original Salmon-pink limewash.
It’s not quite right, and is a bit bright, but is also not as stark as the previous white colour. Hopefully I’ve made the right decision, and if it’s decided to change it in the future, a coat of paint will do it!
Published by: Colin Taylor on: October 14th 2021