The greatest entrance hall is Europe
Recalling the great Pantheon of Rome, with its coffered dome, the marble room c.1772 is the one of the most striking entrance halls in Europe. The floor of the saloon gives the room its name, as it is comprised of over seventy-two four-foot squares of Massa Carrara marble. The Stowe House Preservation Trust (SHPT) received a $600,000 WMF Robert W. Wilson Challenge grant with matched funding for the restoration of this particular room, which was completed by WMF Britain in 2005.
Awe-inspiring is an understatement. The Marble Saloon brings Roman grandeur and a sense of history to pupils and thousands of visitors every year. It contains sixteen great scagliola columns, supporting an entablature with carved satyrs in the metopes. This entablature is surmounted by a spectacular plaster frieze showing a procession of triumphant soldiers in high relief.
Containing two hundred and eighty human figures, the frieze supports a huge elliptical coffered dome which reaches a height of over seventeen metres.
The plasterwork of the dome is spectacular, and nearly every single one of the one hundred and sixty coffers is different in shape and size due to the elliptical design. Damage wrought by years of deterioration, fractured stonework and the wear and tear of school life had taken its toll.
Urgent roof repairs presented the first challenge. Lack of maintenance meant that water penetration threatened the integrity of the interiors. In order to provide protection from the elements, cast iron water tanks were removed from the roof over the plastered dome. The roofs were then restored to their original form with lead and slate coverings.
This project was conservation in its purest form and presented numerous challenges. For example, parts of the intricate detailing of the frieze had been lost and damaged. A policy of minimal intervention was adopted, combining a sensitive cleaning of the ceiling with a sympathetic restoration to elements of the frieze.
Once these works were complete, WMF Britain strove to reinstate the original furnishings and detailing of Domenico Bartoli’s meticulous design. Inappropriate modern lighting methods in the Saloon were replaced by suspended lanterns, and suitable ironmongery was reintroduced to the doors. Loose slabs of the floor were re-bedded.
Ceiling cleaning & missing limbs
This was undertaken in two phases. First, each of the 160 coffers was individually cleaned using a vacuum and soft brushes, in order to remove surface dirt and the thick dust deposits. The second more thorough process was steam cleaning using de-ionised water. This was applied as a fine jet of steam from a Derotor steam tool, and then dabbed dry with cotton wool. After cleaning, a thin layer of distemper was applied which further acts to consolidate the plaster surface, and provides better definition of the modelled details of the coffers and frieze. Wherever possible, exposed ferrous armature was removed and replaced with the equivalent in stainless steel.
Years of mischievous school boys had taken their toll, and the lower parts of the frieze had suffered physical damage.
Graffiti was evident, some figures were missing limbs and balls, keys, and eggs were found lodged in the frieze, while other areas of the frieze were missing. As there is no repeat pattern, a photographic record taken in 1870 by J Mudd & Co had to be used as a guide for the reattachment of loose sections, and also consulted for the recreation of missing elements. The detached sections were salvaged, consolidated and then re-fixed using 5mm stainless steel bars set in polyester resin. When recreating missing sections rubber moulds were used and casting replacements were made in fine plaster. Elements that could not be cast directly from existing areas required hand modelling.