Jun 18th, 2011 | | Conservation | Exterior | Portfolio | 2 Comments

The Case of the Missing Doorcase

Doorcase 1974 - Hertfordshire County Council

The Doorcase in July 1974 – Courtesy Hertfordshire County Council

Every now and then I carry out work for no charge, especially when I believe strongly in the project and know that without it something will be lost. The Case of the Missing Doorcase was one such project.

This story concerns an early Georgian house that was built in 1716, as indicated by a rainwater head that bears the date. It is a three storey, red-brick building with a hipped plain tile roof. The road front has 4 bays and a moulded wood eaves cornice. The more formal garden (south) front has 5 and a (rebuilt) brick parapet. The windows have gauged brick flat heads and exposed box sashes with what appear to be 19th century sashes. There are raised brick bands between floors. The house is listed Grade II*.

Detail of Doric Frieze of Doorcase. (Make a note of the split in the R/H scroll)

Until the 1970s, photographs show that there was a fine doorcase on the road front. This had panelled door linings with a rusticated voussoirred surround and applied fluted pilasters and base. On either side were elaborately carved leaf scroll brackets which supported a flat hood. A Doric frieze of triglyphs and alternating metopes of lions heads and helmets was carried over the door.

House & Gasometer 1974 - Hertfordshire County Council
The House and the Gasometer in July 1974 – Courtesy Hertfordshire County Council

The town has obviously grown up around the house and it is now in a far-from ideal location. The building was last used as flats but fell vacant due to the uncertainty surrounding the future use of the adjacent land on which is sited a gasometer. It was not long before it became a target for vandals and architectural theft and at some stage in the late 1990s the doorcase was dismantled and stored inside the building for safekeeping.

Note how close the gasometer was built to the house and the state of the fence

Suzannah Fleming, of The Temple Trust, began to make enquiries about the doorcase in 2009 when it became clear that it was no longer in the house. A year later she came across a very similar doorcase on the website of an architectural salvage yard. In discussion with the owner he confirmed that he had bought various sections of the doorcase about ten years previously, believing it to have come from a house that was being demolished. He had had to rebuild it because of its rotted state, although confirmed that the Doric frieze was original.

18th century doorcase, photograph by Nathaniel Lloyd (ca. 1915-1933). Reproduced by permission of National Monuments Record
Early 18th century doorcase, photograph by Nathaniel Lloyd (ca. 1915-1933).
Reproduced by permission of National Monuments Record

Fortunately, a high resolution photograph had been taken of the doorcase in the first half of the 20th century and using this Suzannah discussed her thoughts with the present owner of the doorcase. He immediately withdrew it from sale while the matter was investigated.

Suzannah then got in touch with me and asked if I thought that an analysis of the paint on the doorcase might help with establishing its provenance. I reasoned that the early layers, at least, should be the same as the lining to the door that had been left on site.

I had worked with Suzannah on a number of projects in the past, notably the temple at David Garrick’s house, in Hampton and the temple at Gunnersbury Park, in West London.

We arranged to meet at the architectural salvage yard, where the present owner was very happy to have a few samples taken from the doorcase. A week or so later, Suzannah and I travelled to the building itself where further paint samples were removed from elements that had been left behind.

Taking a Sample from the Door Lining

A number of samples were taken from the door lining, which remained in situ.

The door itself was sampled.

Taking Sample of Paint from the Front Door

Door Lining – Showing Samples Taken

Samples were taken from various elements of the door lining and the doorcase – in particular from those that appeared to be painted in a darker paint in the Nathaniel Lloyd photograph – the egg and dart moulding and the cyma reversa mouldings on the doorcase both appear darker in that photograph, while the dentils were in a paler colour. The outer framework of the soffit of the door lining also appeared darker (see A and B in the above photograph).

Some Samples from the Doorcase

The samples were brought back to the workshop and set in small resin blocks with an identifying number. They were then sawn in half and polished with a succession of progressively finer abrasive papers until a mirror-smooth face resulted. At this stage they were examined under the microscope under plain and also under Ultra Violet light. Comparisons were made between the samples from the doorcase and those from the door lining.

a) Cross Section from the Egg (L/H) from the Doorcase Compared with the Soffit of the Door Lining (R/H) under UV Light (Note the darker layers – these were visible when the Nathaniel Lloyd photograph was taken). The letters / numbers are explained below

b) Cross Section from the Dentil (L/H) from the Doorcase Compared with the L/H reveal of the Door Lining under UV Light

A report on the paint layers was produced for Suzannah, who had already commissioned one on the building and doorcase from her architect, Gary Butler of Butler Hegarty Architects. The information provided by the UV photomicrograph is compelling and the combined reports conclusive. Samples from both the doorcase and the door surround have the following similarities, which have been marked accordingly on the upper cross section (a):

a) Titanium-based paint at the top of the sequence;
b) Zinc-based paint with an undercoat composed of titanium and zinc on the two previous occasions;
c) An undercoat based on zinc and lead below the previous zinc scheme;
d) The same number of zinc-based schemes after the last of the lead-based ones;
e) Crucially, brown schemes found at the same level on both the doorcase and surround and only on those elements picked-out in the Nathaniel Lloyd photograph

Even before an analysis of the paint the evidence provided by the Nathaniel Lloyd photograph was persuasive. Suzannah Fleming and Gary Butler had identified four areas of the doorcase that seemed to suggest that the doorcase in the architectural salvage yard was indeed that in the photograph. They had noted:

a) Paint build up on the egg and dart moulding;
b) Mouldings do not meet in the corner, and
c) Two splits in the R/H scroll.

Although it was looking very likely that the missing doorcase had been found, it was only paint analysis that was able to prove the case. While there is little doubt that this particular architectural salvage yard had bought the doorcase in good faith, this sort of information is surely enough to make others think carefully before handling such objects.

I am grateful to Suzannah Fleming of The Temple Trust for her doggedness and for asking me to show how paint analysis can answer many more questions that is sometimes supposed. To Gary Butler of Butler Hegarty Architects, who also carried out extensive work on the project for no remuneration. To National Monument Record and Hertfordshire County Council for kindly allowing the use of the early photographs with no charge. I am also grateful to the owner of the architectural salvage yard, who co-operated fully throughout the exercise.

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Comments (2)

Susan ScottNo Gravatar » 15. Jul, 2011

Is there a final happy ending for this house? Is it being restored with its doorcase in place? Or still “on hold” until the right buyer comes along? Agreed that it is now a pretty awful location…

PatrickNo Gravatar » 15. Jul, 2011

It’s reached an interesting stage. The doorcase has been located. I am hoping that the salvage yard will donate it to The Temple Trust. The owners of the building must then show a willingness to tidy the building up and help to give it a future, otherwise the cycle will continue.