Throughout the year, we’re featuring the many folks involved in the New Room’s restoration and their roles in the project. Today, we interview Maeve Bristow, an architectural paint conservator and Principle with the preservation firm Black Creek Workshop LLC. She is one of the key team members on the architectural restoration.
Hi Maeve! Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell me about your work as an architectural paint conservator?
I work on a variety of projects including buildings, wall paintings, and painted surfaces. My specialty is the conservation of historic painted surfaces (on plaster, wood, stone, etc.). There are many factors that come into play with this work. Often, the paintings are integral to the building fabric, so I have to deal with all the layers beneath the paint. The work might include plaster consolidation, wood repairs, stonework, or lime repairs, all building up to the paint layer on top. Quite often a treatment includes initial stabilization of the paint layer and it might also include removal of surface dirt, discolored varnish, reattachment of flaking or delaminated paint. Then, the restoration would consist of filling, in-painting, re-varnishing, and some reintegration of all the materials.
The cove in the New Room, after paint was stripped.
Tell me a little bit about what you have been doing on the cove in the New Room. We posted a picture showing that the paint was being stripped. Why are you stripping the paint and what happens next?
As well as restoration, the New Room project is also about redecoration and reinterpretation based on research. Though you could not actually see it from the ground, there were areas of the cove with flaking and failing paint, all of which was modern paint applied during the 1980s and 1990s restoration campaigns. Because we wanted a stable surface to repaint on top of, it was necessary to remove most of that, followed by priming and filling any cracks or voids. Removing the paint has revealed past treatments, underlying cracks, and various layers of paint and plaster and bonding agents, which we have documented. Also, working in the cove has allowed Susan Buck, an architectural paint analyst, to access original areas of paint and take further paint samples to determine what the original color was.
The cove in the New Room with primer applied. This is standard off-white primer, and not the cove’s final color.
I saw you added some primer. Is that the stable surface on which you’ll paint?
The primer helps unify the surface because there are various materials, plasters, and paints there. We’re using standard off-white there, but when it comes to decorating the cove, we will use another primer that will be tinted to match the top coat of paint we’re putting on. This is all to be decided upon following Susan’s recommendations. The primer allows us to apply repairs to it, separating new material from old. Part of my job is to understand the materials, the material interaction, and choose our restoration materials and methods based on that understanding.
Can you speak about your background and how you came to this career?
I was fortunate to find out early on that I wanted to become an art conservator. At Art College in the Isle of Man, I was considering interior design when my tutor asked if I had thought about art conservation. I hadn’t, but I was very interested in art and science, and so it was the perfect marriage for me. At 19, I did a three-year degree in the conservation of decorative surfaces at London Guildhall University, and that’s when I developed my interest in painted surfaces.
After graduating I went up to Scotland where I worked for a few years. My projects included the restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Ingram Street Tea Rooms in Glasgow and stone conservation at St. Giles’ Cathedral and the conservation of Phoebe Anna Traquair murals at Mansfield Church, both in Edinburgh. With those projects, I could engage my interest in historic interiors, use and develop my skills working with painted surfaces as well as historic materials, including stone and lime.
Maeve Bristow working on the Phoebe Anna Traquair wall paintings in Mansfield Church, Edinburgh.
After that, I felt the need to spread my wings. I took a graduate fellowship in painted surfaces at Colonial Williamsburg and moved to Virginia sight unseen. I worked on the Carolina Room, an early nineteenth-century painted folk art interior that required many, many hours of intensive over-paint removal. After that project, I worked on various decorative painting and building conservation projects through International Fine Art Conservation Studios, Ltd. in Atlanta. In the meantime, I met my husband, Benjamin Bristow, who is a master carpenter specializing in historic preservation. A few years ago, we formed our company, Black Creek Workshop LLC, and we carry out large restoration projects. Right now we are replacing the roof on Appomattox Manor with the National Park Service.
Maeve working on the ceiling in the New Room (before the cove was stripped).
Finally, what’s your take on the New Room and the restoration being done today?
Since moving to America, my knowledge of American history has massively expanded and I find it very, very interesting to learn about the history. Mount Vernon and the New Room were seen by the most important people in the land and so many things happened here. Compared to some of the interiors I’ve worked on before, the New Room is very luxurious and high style.
I find it very interesting to be involved in new research. Applying the current paint research is an important step to accurately interpret the room. I am excited to apply the formulated paints using original pigments. It’s so important to understand the chronology of decorative schemes that were used in an interior. Each project is different, but they have similarities, and we can use our past experience and do some brainstorming and new testing as well. It’s thrilling to be part of the history of the room. We’re happy to be working here.
Thank you, Maeve!
Interview conducted and edited by Hannah Freece, Outreach Coordinator.