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.
A fragile record
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 has penetrated 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.
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.
Re-securing the archiveEvery three months specialists in the conservation of painted surfaces visit the cell block. There are a number of areas that they monitor on each visit as reference points to help understand how quickly, or slowly, the lime-wash is deteriorating. Specialists also carry emergency treatment of failing areas using a lime solution to gently ease flaking material back onto the wall. It is painstaking work, but it ensures we lose as little as possible during the period when the building is drying out.
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.