After a £1.7 million restoration, Eltham Palace and Gardens in Greenwich reopened on 3 April 2015 with five new and intriguing rooms for you to explore. Jemma Edwards, a conservator currently working on revealing the original 1930s hand painted decorative scheme in the Map Room introduces us to what has been uncovered so far.
Tucked away in a small space behind the Boudoir, the Map Room can be found in the part of the palace built by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s. This amazing find was believed to have been a practical space and used primarily as the secretary’s office, though we can see it has since been re-purposed several times. We have only a limited amount of evidence as to what the room was used as, in fact, very little was known about this room at all. The decorative scheme was also totally unknown as there are no surviving photographs of the room from the 1930s or 1940s.
Initially when the existing wallpaper was removed back in December 2014, 11 maps from around the world were exposed by a specialised paper conservator. They were found hiding beneath two layers of wallpaper and several layers of paint and it was at this stage that a member of the conservation team noticed a few deliberate-looking brush strokes and decided to investigate further.
A number of delightful hand painted decorative illustrations were found that complimented the maps. Entirely whimsical and utterly delightful, they include komodo dragons, a geisha, elephants, gemstones, birds, coral and even a quetzacoatl – or a feathered dragon to you and me. There's also a lovely painted blue wave that follows the room around the whole edge, plus a cheerful art deco style sun which peeps out above them.
As the scheme is oil painted onto lining paper, it is extremely fragile in places and in serious need of consolidation (a process where adhesive is introduced by injecting it into the voids in order to re-attach the paper where it is lifting from the plaster wall beneath). But this is only after it has been carefully uncovered using mechanical action, i.e. scraping and picking – gently! – with scalpels. We aim to uncover and consolidate the paintings as well as removing the discoloured varnish layer that covers the scheme in only four months. Though it is satisfying to see the progress we’ve made, it is certainly true to say that it’s painstaking!
Of course, one of the fantastic things about working on a project like this is that we can talk to you as we’re working and you will get a real sense of just how delicate – and labour intensive – our work is. Some of you have already come to see us and we’ve been delighted by your questions and support for the project – do say hi if you happen to drop in! We are hoping to continue fundraising as the work continues so that we can progress to the next stage of conservation in the summer and hopefully bring the room fully back to life as it was in the 1930s.
Protected for the future
Thanks to donations from the public, the fragile maps and murals have been painstakingly uncovered and protected, enabling them to be displayed to visitors.
Find out more about how donations support important projects at English Heritage.
Read part two of the blog here.