Conservation of the Cell Block at Richmond Castle

    The thousands of graffiti created by prisoners and others from the First World War onwards on the walls of a cell block at Richmond Castle form a unique and remarkable record. But the graffiti are fragile – they line the walls of a 19th-century building that wasn’t designed to last. With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage has instigated a major programme of conservation to protect the cell block and graffiti for the future.

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    A fragile record

    Salts forming on one of the walls of the cell block at Richmond Castle

    Salts forming on one of the walls of the cell block at Richmond Castle, as a result of water seeping into the building and reacting with the lime wash and plaster

    If the graffiti had been written on paper, perhaps in personal letters or diaries, they would now be packaged in acid-free tissue, kept in a climate-controlled archive and handled by curators wearing white gloves. But conditions in the cell block could hardly be more different. The inscriptions are written on the transitory lime-washed walls of a late 19th-century building. Rainwater is penetrating the building fabric through fault lines in the roof and walls, causing a damaging level of moisture within the building.

    Lime wash is a fragile, temporary material. Highly reactive to change, its stability and therefore its survival depend on the environment around it. The layers of lime wash and the wall plaster they are painted on contain salts that react to moisture. As moisture levels rise and fall, the salts first liquefy and then crystallise, a process of contraction and expansion that fragments the structure of the lime wash, breaking its bond with the render behind.

    The result is a powdering and flaking of the surfaces, and a loss of the graffiti.

    READ MORE ABOUT THE GRAFFITI
    Laser scans (right) of the wall surfaces at regular intervals can determine tiny movements in the lime wash (left)

    Laser scans (right) of the wall surfaces at regular intervals can determine tiny movements in the lime wash (left)

    The power of breath

    Even our breath can impact on the graffiti. Within just a few minutes, a group of people within a single cell breathing warm, moist air into the space can significantly change the overall environment. A hand put out to steady yourself can dislodge lime-wash flakes. If a shoulder bag scuffs the wall, it can leave a line of loss in its wake.

    Since 2014 conservation scientists from the Buildings Conservation and Research Team at Historic England have been establishing a picture of the building’s environment. They have recorded humidity and temperature levels inside the cells and moisture content within the walls, and tracked how these are affected by weather conditions and people visiting the cells. Analysis of the make-up of the walls and lime wash has determined the presence of salts, and how these react to their environment.

    These photographs of the same piece of graffiti in the cell block, taken in 1984 (left) and 2000 (right), show the extent of decay over a 16-year period

    These photographs of the same piece of graffiti in the cell block, taken in 1984 (left) and 2000 (right), show the extent of decay over a 16-year period

    Keeping a record

    Over the last three years, we have built up an in-depth record of the building. Laser scanning and high resolution photography, commissioned by Historic England’s Geospatial Imaging team, have given us accurate and detailed survey data. We have compared recent photographs with others taken in the 1990s to establish the extent and focus of decay in the intervening years. Some trial areas of wall have been repeatedly laser scanned to track any fractional movement in the lime wash.

    Water ingress from the roof of the Richmond Castle cell block has led to the formation of stalactites

    Water ingress from the roof of the Richmond Castle cell block has led to the formation of stalactites

    Repairing the building

    The conservation project aims to gradually reduce the amount of moisture entering the cell block to achieve a much more stable internal environment. Phase one of the work is now complete, with major repairs to the roof and walls stopping further water penetrating the fabric. We are now closely monitoring changes in the environment as the building gradually adjusts. The ultimate goal is to reduce moisture to an average level well below that at which salts react and damage the lime wash.

    Throughout this time, specialists in the conservation of historic painted surfaces will treat the areas of lime wash most at risk of loss.

    The first floor landing of the Richmond Castle cell block today

    The first-floor landing of the cell block today

    Public access

    For the past 20 years we have strictly limited access to the cells. As we have looked for ways of solving the conservation challenges, we have done all we can to protect the graffiti.

    The work being carried out between 2016 and 2019, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, should significantly improve the environment within the building. If we can stabilise the surfaces on which the graffiti are written, we will be able to give controlled public access to the spaces for the very first time.

          

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