Taplow team tackles important Big Ben conservation

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

adrianw@baylismedia.co.uk

Restorative work on Elizabeth Tower – the iconic building containing Big Ben – is set to be completed next year thanks in part to a Taplow conservation team.

Over the course of four years, award-winning Cliveden Conservation used similar methods from when the bell tower was built in the 1850s to conserve it for generations to come.

Parliament will gradually unwrap the Tower over the coming months, returning the landmark to its former glory and ensuring the bells of Big Ben can be heard once more.

“It’s hugely important to do this work,” said Lewis Proudfoot, managing director of Cliveden Conservation.

“These are one-of-a-kind buildings that stand for a lot more than the bricks and mortar they’re built with.

“Elizabeth Tower is the crowning part of the houses of Parliament, which showed off the nation’s status when it was built.”

Cliveden Conservation, now into its 30th anniversary, is made up of skilled decorators and masonry professionals, among others.

“Members of our team come from all walks of life,” said Lewis. “As you do more projects that involve heritage, you build a love of old buildings, making your mark, allowing people to enjoy these special places for years to come.”

Elizabeth Tower only receives a spruce up like this once every 40 or 50 years. The last one was in the 1980s.

The scaffold went up in 2017 and Cliveden Conservation began working on it in winter that year.

First, the team had to do some archaeological investigation on the tower. Working with archivists, architects and paint analysts, Cliveden Conservation helped to produce the most detailed account so far of the Elizabeth Tower’s decorative past.

The decision was made to restore the Tower to its original colour scheme from the late 19th century, excavating more than 20 layers of hardened paint from the clockfaces and surrounding masonry, right through to the original carved stone.

The stone, which was previously black with paint, then had to be carefully cleaned to reveal its original beauty before gilding and decorating could start.

This was a delicate job, as some methods of stripping paint are more abrasive than others.

“When you gild a surface, it really shows up any damage,” said Lewis.

“We’re lucky enough to work with these prestigious buildings and they have got to be done in the right way – we can’t cut corners, or we have lost something of great cultural value.”

Gilding is not just decorative but serves an important part of the preservation of the Tower, as it is ‘one of the most durable metals there is’.

Lukasz Kornacki, gilding supervisor, said that this work will remain ‘the most prestigious project’ in his career.

“I am proud to have been given the opportunity to be part of the preservation and history of this symbolic icon of Britain,” he said.

Another required skill was traditional signwriting, as the heraldic shields on the Tower required touching up with the free-hand technique.

To complete the work, Cliveden Conservation sent up two teams of around 27 people, alongside other conservation groups.

“It’s a big building but very tight in terms of space, so we had to work well with others,” said Lewis.

They faced all sorts of struggles, including the 2018 Beast from the East, where everyone worked through snow, ice and high winds.

“Its especially hard when you’re so high up – the Tower is about 100m – it’s a long way back down if you forget anything,” said Lewis.

“One of the biggest challenges was all the changes. The guys just want to get on with the work, but there’s a lot of security, meetings and red tape, because it’s such an important building.

“This project was a long time in the making, it’s been a great challenge, different to our usual conservation work,” he added. “Hopefully we get to work on something like this again in the future.”

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