Plowden & Smith celebrate 50th Anniversary

The business was originally set up by Peter Smith in 1966 and then amalgamated with that of the late Anna Plowden in 1985. It has remained in the same family for half a century, with Peter’s son, Kevin, now acting as Managing Director.

Plowden & Smith’s premises, a former Royal Mail sorting office, stands on St. Ann’s Hill in Wandsworth SW18. The pleasing well-detailed brick façade of this late Victorian building is discreet, carrying no indication of the hive of activity within the labyrinthine warren behind. It is probably not the easiest of buildings from which to run a conservation studio, but it is certainly one which exudes character and reflects the ethos of the firm.

There are numerous specialist departments operating within the building including decorative arts, metalwork, stonework, furniture, ceramics, paintings and textiles. The layout allows each department to work independently, but makes consultation and collaboration, which is frequently required on multi-media works, very convenient. Plowden & Smith employ a large staff of around 30, but when I visit, there are only about a dozen conservators working in the studios, the others were away on site visits.

On arrival, I am greeted by marketing manager, Alison Eltham, who quickly whisks me into the heart of the activity. We pass through the porcelain department where newbie, Harriet Sylvester, is having a busy first day. She has already filled some damages on an attractive Isnik tile, painstakingly cleaned a small Chinese figurative group carved from pink soapstone and is now in the process of mending a hole in an Isnik dish. 

Entering the next room, the decorative arts department, I am stunned by the back view of a very large oak figure resting on its side. It is clearly an historical piece of English woodcarving. The head is a detailed mass of well-carved stylised curls, the base uneven and badly decayed. The flat top of the head suggests, as indeed proves to be the case, that the statue was once an atlantid figure. Interested to see the front, I move around the statue and notice that there is a substantial loss to the body to the left of the centre (main image).

I ask Loredana Mannina, one of the conservators working on the statue, whether the figure was carved from a single tree trunk. She explains that this was investigated in 1993, when the sculpture was X-radiographed at Norwich Airport, this should have been an accurate method of discovering whether the figure was made from one piece of wood, but the high lead content of the thick paint layers, with which it was coated, prevented much information being generated. Once the lead paint had been removed, however, she said that it was easier to obtain an idea of how the figure had been assembled. Although she has detected some joins in the oak, having closely examined the sculpture, inch by inch, during its conservation, she says she is now confident that the figure was carved from one single majestic trunk of oak. 

Boudewien Westra, another of the conservators who has spent many hours working on the figure, then explains that the fragile wood beneath the layers of paint needed consolidation and that this was achieved by creating a small hole in the sculpture about 15cm deep. A long tube was then inserted into this hole to feed consolidate into the core of the sculpture in order to prevent further degradation of the wood, which was very spongy on the inside. Surface consolidation was carried out as well to prevent pieces of wood flaking off, this has now been completed and the process of filling the losses will start. 

Intrigued by the size of the figure and the quality of the carving, I ask Loredana what is known about the statue and its history. She reveals that it represents Samson and was one of two atlantids supporting the portico on the façade of the house of Christopher Jay, the Mayor of Norwich. The house, which has become known as ‘The Samson and Hercules House’, was built, or rather refashioned, from an earlier building to celebrate his mayoralty and was completed in 1656-7 and so Samsonis thought to date from that same period. Sadly its original pair, a figure of Hercules, was destroyed in a fire. Both the statues have now been replaced on the façade of the building, which is now a night-club, by rather luridly coloured fibreglass replicas and the original Samson is destined, when fully conserved, for the collection of the Norwich Castle Museum.

Photographs of the statue, when it first arrived, reveal that the transformation it has undergone is quite astonishing. Samson had been coated in a series of layers of lead paint over the many years, which had completely obliterated all detail of the skilled carving. The painstaking work of paint removal has been a laborious exercise, but one which has paid huge dividends. First with chisel and hammer, the outer layers of heavy paint were removed and then as the original surface became nearer, a scalpel was used to carefully take away the earlier layers of paint.

Boudewien then explains that there were safety concerns for the conservators too and that ‘throughout this process we not only had to take care of the sculpture, but also ourselves because the paint contained lead and the process of removing it resulted in tiny paint particles that we were at risk of inhaling and so we had to wear masks with special filters while we were working.’

Now reaching the final phase, this conservation process has taken close to three years, and with much of the work complete, the conservators are in a position to assess the figure properly. Loredana says she is almost certain that the original wood was for the most part unpainted, although she points out to me some areas on the edges of the drapery, the buckle of the figure’s belt and on the teeth of the ass’s jawbone, which are highlighted with traces of gold leaf. Samson holds a fox under his left arm, its brush has a substantial covering of red polychromy which has emerged from beneath the final layer of pale grey lead overpaint and which she also believes to be original. The fox itself is a biblical reference to the Book of Judges and the red paint may refer to the fact that, here, Samson is described as catching three hundred foxes tying them up in pairs, putting a torch between their tails and then releasing them to burn down the Philistines’ grain fields. 

The other attribute which aids the figure’s identification as Samson, apart from his glorious long hair, which is fashioned rather like a Cavalier’s and complements his moustachioed face, is the jawbone of an ass which he carries under his right arm, with which he slayed a thousand Philistines. This has become detached and is now being carefully reaffixed. The detail, which had been lost through over-zealous repainting, has been carefully retrieved and now we can see its full extent, the arms for example, are covered with a stylised net-like pattern of popping veins designed to convey Samson’s strength.

This is a most fascinating piece in terms of both its conservation and its history. When it is time to instal it in Norfolk Castle Museum there will a challenge to face in terms of display. The statue must be exhibited vertically, but has no base. This will probably mean the weight of the statue being taken by a resin support, raised on a stand from beneath with another support to the top of the head. Later in the mounting department, I see how this sort of problem is regularly tackled by them.

Rather reluctantly I take my leave of Samson and am guided to the Stonework department, where I meet Francis Toohey who is at work on the repair of a large rather generic caryatid figure swathed in an attractive pink marble. The figure has been badly restored in the past and we agree that, all too often conservation involves removing and correcting old restorations. Francis is keen to share his knowledge and expertise, he explains that when he reattaches and bonds the pieces, the statue has to be floated in a sturdy wooden box frame so that the fragments can be aligned with precision in three dimensions.

We briefly discuss the problems involved with moving heavy sculpture like this, the great care which must be taken and the necessity of employing professionals who have experience and the correct lifting equipment. Francis tells me that Plowden & Smith are frequently employed to advise on moving large pieces and that it can take up to two days to prepare a large sculpture for transport. Preparation often involves placing many wedges carefully underneath the piece so that it barely feels as though it is being lifted from the ground, which is a very slow process.

Francis then describes one major logistical challenge the firm faced in recent years, which was moving Sir Henry Cheere’s marble monument to the distinguished barrister of the Inner Temple, Sir George Cooke, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Constructed from 58 separate pieces of marble, which made the statue and its base extremely difficult to move and reassemble without damage, Plowden & Smith were asked to devise a method for safe and possibly repeated transportation.

Francis explains that the solution they settled on was to make the 49 parts of the plinth assemble in a way which combined the eighteenth-century construction technique of lime mortar with twenty-first century mechanical handling equipment and create just two pieces – the statue and the base. The complete monument was then transported to the Ashmolean Museum on a stainless steel pallet topped with a 4” deep solid slab of slate, which was specially quarried and chosen for its incredible tensile strength, to act as a shock absorber. An immensely strong stainless steel core was constructed to keep the weight of the plinth down. A traditional plinth of this size with a brick core would have weighed an unmanageable 5,000-6,000kg and would not have withstood the vibration of transport. The original construction of the eighteenth-century hollow exterior plinth was haphazard and its marble panels were not designed to be weight- bearing and so the entire weight of the statue had to be transferred to this stainless steel core, and its manufacture had to be absolutely precise.

As far as possible, the assembly of the statue was along traditional lines. Stainless steel cramps were manufactured following the original patterns cut into the marble. These were fixed with a small amount of epoxy resin, instead of the traditional lead, and packed into place with lime mortar. The blocks were then laid on lime mortar with lead spacers. All pointing, packing and shallow repairs were undertaken using lime mortar. For presentation in the gallery on arrival, a removable MDF cover was fitted over the slate and stainless steel pallet. Francis tells me that the transport from London to Oxford had gone without a hitch and, almost miraculously, the lime mortar had all held perfectly. He adds that previously it would have taken weeks to erect the monument on site, but that such an installation can now be completed in a couple of days.

Over the past few years, he has been working on a succession of First World War memorials, some of which have been in an alarming state of neglect, but which have suddenly come into the spotlight because of the centenary of the Great War. One of the first, and most interesting, he worked on, he says, was the memorial inside Kings Cross station. The original memorial from the 1920s had been dismantled in the 1970s and the architectural surround discarded and lost. The marble panels recording the names of the dead, however, had been retained, but relocated to an unsuitable location in a corridor. As part of the redevelopment of Kings Cross in 2008, they were dismantled, conserved, remounted in individual modern stainless steel mounts and in 2013 were installed in a prime location on the station concourse. The design of the eleven separately framed panels was designed to echo the eleven soldiers depicted in John Singer Sargent’s well-known 1919 painting, Gassed.

Then it is on to the metalwork department, where I am introduced to Hal Jacob. He works under the experienced guiding eye of Mick Willett, who has been a member of staff for over forty years. Hal is a delight to talk to and clearly has a passion for his work. First he shows me a semi-abstract maquette by Lynn Chadwick that he is working on. It is a typical Chadwick construction with iron frame structure filled with Stolit, a mixture of plaster and iron filings. This is a relatively straightforward conservation task. Hal thinks the piece had probably been dropped at some point, one of the legs was bent and had to be straightened and there are some small lacunae in the Stolit, which will require filling, perhaps with cotton.

Hal is also working on a striking art nouveau chair by furniture designer, Carlo Bugatti, father of two celebrated sons, the sculptor Rembrandt and the car manufacturer Ettore. This was one of a set of several items of early twentieth-century Bugatti furniture currently undergoing restoration at Plowden & Smith. Hybrid in design, these fascinating pieces combine elements of Gothic, Islamic and North African design to create a unique and utterly bizarre style.

The basic structure of the chair, on which Hal is working, is sound, but several of the smaller geometric patterned decorative elements are missing or have become detached. The inlaid brass stringing, a particular decorative feature of the chair, is also absent in some areas and Hal demonstrates how he resizes the new length of brass stringing by pulling it through a draw plate with drawing tongs and then fits the sized strand into the original groove. Fish glue is used to reattach the pieces and Hal explains that this, because it dries slowly, is ideal for this type of work because it allows the conservator time to position the elements carefully. He tells me that fish and animal glue are used in furniture conservation because it is reversible. This was the traditional method of gluing furniture and allows it to be taken apart without damage, modern synthetic glues cannot be reversed in the same way. The new brass is then patinated, using a mixture of ammonia and walnut shavings to match the original inlay.

Next we visit the furniture department, where I see more Bugatti furniture and realise that the set of furniture has a very sculptural feel and may have even been part of an overall interior room design by Bugatti. I also notice a beautiful boxwood regency cabinet. Pavol Hudacek, who is carefully restoring the urn-shaped finials, explains that he has already consolidated some veneer which was lifting, but this damage seems to me to be now virtually untraceable.

The interesting tour is finally over, but as I am about to leave, Alison suggests I just meet Susan Moore in the painting department and although there is nothing here of sculptural interest at present. The collaborative way the firm operates is illustrated by the fact that Susan tells me she often works with other departments on decorative pieces. As an example, she shows me a photo of a splendid wooden settle decorated with the signs of the zodiac by the Gothic Revival architect, William Burges, on which she restored the painted panels by Henry Stacey Marks. The settle was part of Burges’ personal collection, it then passed to the poet, Sir John Betjeman, who gave it to the author, Evelyn Waugh, and handed down through his family. It was conserved by Plowden & Smith before finally entering the collections of Bedford Museum.

Plowden & Smith is a hive of industry in South London. The staff are skilled and dedicated to their work and handle a variety of sculpture and other objects with great care and expertise. The firm deserves to be congratulated on achieving 50 successful years in business. It clearly moves with the times and shows sensitivity in combining best modern conservation practice with traditional knowledge and skill. 3rd Dimension wishes them well, as they move into their next fifty years and hopes this family firm will, in due course, reach its centenary.

Main image: English mid C17th, Samson, oak, after the removal of overpaint (photo: courtesy of Plowden & Smith)

Aurora Corio