THE PAINTED CEILING IN THE GREAT HALL
TOWER OF HALBAR, LANARKSHIRE
Report by June McEwan, Artist
THE TOWER OF HALBAR, formerly home to the Lockharts of Lee and still remaining in their ownership, stands in the Clyde Valley in Lanarkshire, near the village of Braidwood. On the oldest part of the tower the date 1601 is carved (footnote 1), although it is said to have existed in some form or another since the eleventh century (footnote 2). The present tower was built in response to the 1535 Act of Parliament advising all Border landlords to construct a defensive tower, 30-foot square, "...to protect their household from Border raiders When the alarm was raised the landlord would gather his household into the tower safe in the knowledge they were protected by five-foot-thick walls!" (footnote 3). In fact, Halbar measures only 26 feet square (footnote 4).
The Tower of Halbar was portrayed by D R Rankin in 1884: "The tower is of the simplest Norman, or Scotch baronial type--square--one apartment above the other, connected by straight stairs passing up in the thickness of the wall--meagrely lighted--battlemented, and covered with a stone roof". Rankin praised the repairs to the Tower by Sir Norman Macdonald Lockhart, Bart., in 1861, describing the tower as being "in a very perfect state". More than a century later, Maurice Lindsay commented that "it is not beyond repair" (footnote 5). Nevertheless, the tower--a Category A-listed Scheduled Ancient Monument--was in need of rescuing, and in 1999 The Vivat Trust began an extensive renovation and improvement project.
D R Rankin wrote that the Great Hall "...has a much decayed stone floor over the arched vault..."--the floor was repaired shortly after Rankin's comments--"...Opposite...is the only window of this apartment...offering very imperfect light to the hall..." (footnote 6). In fact, there are three windows in the hall, the side windows possibly having been covered when Rankin visited in 1884. Rankin went on: "The height of the ceiling is 10 feet 9 inches, being the floor of the apartment above, supported on beams resting on strong stone corbels." These beams are the existing beams, and have been dated to the early 19th century, but when The Vivat Trust undertook to repair and renovate the Tower in 1999, the ceiling was completely replaced.
When The Vivat Trust were exploring design possibilities for the Great Hall, it was decided that the ceiling could be painted in a traditional style, with heraldic shields and motifs relevant to the Lockharts and their antecedents. I was asked to consider possible designs, and to provide a schedule of work. From the very beginning, it was important to liaise with Historic Scotland. Several fruitful discussions with Alan Rutherford--Historic Scotland Inspector for the area--led to the establishment of parameters. My colour scheme, design ideas, methods and materials were approved, with the proviso that the work was to be signed by the artist and dated (in keeping with 17th century practice).
DESIGN, ON-SITE METHODS and MATERIALS
The Vivat Trust chose an early 17th century decorative style. Given this remit, I made the decision to paint in rabbitskin glue distemper, traditional pigments, and use an authentic Scottish 17th century pallette.
I met with Angus Macdonald, Earl of Lockhart, and his wife Susan, and discussed choices of imagery, heraldry, motifs and decorative elements. Having looked at some of my early sketches, Angus and Susan expressed an interest in local animal images incorporated into the design (particularly boars, which feature in the Lockhart heraldry). An early idea was to include several motifs and heraldries relevant to the Lockhart antecedants, but it was felt that this would make the overall design too busy; only the Lockharts of Lee heraldry would be used. A vital element in the Lockhart's heraldry is the image of a heart. Simon Lockhart of Lee carried Robert I's heart to Spain in 1329 and returned with the Lee Penny, actually a semi precious blood-red stone subsequently set in an Edward IV groat; it is said to have healing powers, and was the subject of Walter Scott's The Talisman. It was agreed by all parties that the Lee Penny should form an important rôle in the painted ceiling design.
Vivat director Frances Lloyd suggested adding fruit to the design in keeping with the long history of fruit growing in the Clyde Valley, and the fact that there had been a 17th century-established orchard in the grounds of Halbar (now to be replanted).
I took the various elements and suggestions from consultations with those involved with the project, and additional research into contemporary painted walls and ceilings (e.g. Kinneil House near Grangemouth, Skelmorlie in Largs, the bedchamber of Mary Queen of Scots in the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, Huntingtower in Perthshire, Rossend Castle in Fife, and Crathes Castle in Kincardineshire), and started formulating the design. Another influence was the grotesque engravings of Matthias Merian (1593-1651), whose animal drawings became popular with the Scottish nobility.
The dressed pine ceiling is split into five sections by timber beams. In the central section I used one heraldic device framed by a cartouche linked to strapwork. On each side of the central section, I utilised the Lee Penny motif; the two outer sections incorporated animal imagery. Throughout all five sections, floral images and fruit link the overall design. Each beam is painted with patterns based on contemporary occurrences.
A final touch was the inclusion of a rampant boar painted onto the plaster surface of the window ingo.
Once the essential floored scaffold was erected, the first job was to size the entire ceiling, including the beams with rabbitskin glue size. A chalk ground (Champagne chalk, rabbitskin glue size and coloured pigment--Furnace Black and Yellow Ochre) was then applied. I made stencils for the beam patterns and transferred them onto the beams using charcoal. They were then painted using hot rabbitskin glue size distemper. (At an early stage in the renovation project, the beams were treated for dry rot, resulting in discoloration and delayed drying times at the painting stage.)
Typical of 17th c. construction, measurements in the Tower are variable, so I started drawing directly onto the chalk ground using graphite and direct application of paint. All tempera work was applied using bold outlines and colour fill with brush and paint. The design elements were simply painted in tempera earth colours to suit the subject matter, fruit being given depth by lifting out colour with rag and adding a little black to accentuate form. In contrast, the central shield was painted in traditional heraldic colours.
Rabbitskin Glue Distemper, applied hot (painted ceiling, beams and window ingo)
Initially A R P Lorimer, the architects, felt the ceiling would require a fire-retardant finish. However, after discussion with Jim Grant, the on-site architect, and Frances Lloyd, we came to the conclusion that this would be unnecessary due to the use of water-based distemper, the chalk ground, and the installation of smoke alarms.
Various brushes were chosen from catalogues from Lewis Ward & Co, London and A S Handover Ltd, London:
CONCLUSIONS AND PERSONAL COMMENT
After the initial remit, Frances Lloyd, director of The Vivat Trust, invested a lot of trust in my judgement and ability to carry the job through and liaise with Historic Scotland. Her confidence in me led to a very good working relationship, and the support of the Vivat Trust meant I could get ahead without a lot of on-site changes. The design was an interpretation of 17th century decorative arts; accuracy of design style was important in terms of historic authenticity, but rather than being a carbon copy of, say, the ceiling at Rossend Castle in Burntisland, a new work has been created. Of necessity, anything creative will have that person's individuality stamped upon it. In essence, I was recreating the role of the 17th century painter, using as near as could be achieved the same tools and methods. I imagine the original direction to the artist was to enhance the living area, and to impress vistors. Today's visitors - the guests - should be no less impressed; the painted ceiling provides a conversation piece in much the same way as it would have in the 17th century.