Reactive, Proactive and Interactive – The Conservation and Reinstallation of the Cassiobury House Staircase at The Met

Mecka Baumeister, Lisa Ackerman, Ivo Kipre, Nick Pedemonti, Jody Hanson, and Jesse Ng

Abstract

An architectural highlight reinstalled in The Met’s new British Galleries is the 1680s wooden staircase from Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire which was acquired by the museum in 1932, and was first installed in 1956. In the new British Galleries, the staircase has been reinstalled in a configuration aiming for a closer approximation of its original 17th century layout. To fully experience the elaborate pierced, double-sided acanthus scroll carving of the baluster friezes, which are also depicted in the reconstructed trompe l’oeil paintings on the stair’s wainscoting, visitors will be welcomed to walk up and/or down the staircase which required a different approach to the conservation treatment. To realize this concept the conservation team was responsible for structurally stabilizing the staircase, rejoining staircase elements that were cut during the previous installation, and making replacements of missing sections and fragile elements. Additional precautions were made including a supporting steel structure installed underneath the stair, a modern handrail attached to the wall, and a carpet runner on the original stairs using a similar mounting system to when the staircase was at Cassiobury House.   Another conservation challenge was the surface treatment of the staircase, which was constructed using three different woods: elm for the newel post finials and the double-sided carved baluster friezes; pine for the newel posts, stringers, baluster bases, and handrails; and oak for the treads and risers. Prior to the Museum’s acquisition of the staircase, the original and subsequent finishes were chemically stripped by the dealer to reflect an unpainted aesthetic associated with the renowned Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), to whom the carving was attributed at the time. It is now believed to be the work of Edward Pearce (ca. 1635–1695). Our research and examination revealed that the balustrades of the staircase were originally painted, however, there is not enough residual evidence to determine its earlier appearance. Developing a protocol for treating the extremely compromised surfaces of the elm, pine and oak elements while preserving the integrity, protecting all surfaces of the staircase elements and creating an aesthetically unified uncoated appearance of the staircase was a complex task.   Given the fragility of the original carved elm newel post finials, they needed to be replaced to withstand possible touching by unruly visitors. Laser scanning of the most well preserved original finial was carried out in The Met’s Imaging Department and losses could be digitally reconstructed in the resulting three-dimensional image. A 3-D print proved essential for reviewing the shape and details of the “digital” finial before the data could be used to mill wooden reproductions from a solid block of oak, recycled from a one hundred twenty year old church balcony beam. The new finials are hand-finished by a professional carver and their surfaces treated to blend in with the rest of the staircase elements before a custom mounting system locked them in place.

2020 | Online | Volume 27