This is an absolutely true story, and I am telling it for the very first time.
I used to work as a fine art restorer and conservator, but my remit was far wider than just paintings and sculpture. As a specialist in contemporary art and specialist materials, my work involved everything from art to zoology through mosaics, kinetic art, electronics and lapidary. Over the course of nearly forty years I either restored or conserved for the future many works by world famous artists, many objects now on display in the worlds greatest museums and palaces, and also worked for many VIP’s and celebrities from rock and rollers to royalty.
There are many unusual stories that I could tell from these years but the following is probably the strangest and most intriguing, so here we go.
I was once called in to estimate for performing some restoration work in an eighteenth century private mansion in a very famous London square, not so very far from Harrods in Knightsbridge. The house is a large and imposing Georgian building over five floors, the typical ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ home which, in it’s heyday, employed a Butler, Footmen, Chef and myrid other servants to look after a large rich family who lived in opulent circumstances. Two world wars had thined out the residents of the house however, the toll of war is hard on family life and England had changed forever, it would never be the same again.
By the nineteen eighties of course, the butler and footmen had gone and the remaining family members were now reduced to actually working for a living, and largely looking after themselves, although still hanging on to their upper class ideals in many ways.
The house had been somewhat neglected, since world war two had left it with fewer family and staff, with the upkeep on these large london mansions being a huge millstone around the necks of the owners they scraped by with just the minimum of paid staff.
But, by the nineteen eighties there was some new money around, and the house was slowly being worked on, being refurbished and redecorated room by room.
The job that I was called in to look at involved a very large room which had originally been a ballroom. One could imagine the dances and ball’s that had once graced its interior, with the ladies wearing their finest clothes and the men in white tie and tails as they walzt the nights away.
This room had originally been very finely decorated with long brocade drapes at the tall wide windows, there was carved and gilded details to the scaglioni faux marble pillars, which were surmounted by gold leafed ceiling panels and architraves. It was absolutely splendid and in generally good condition if somewhat shabby.
The broad walls were hung with fine Chinese silk, this was stretched in the usual way over wooden lathes fixed to the wall beneath, the seams and joints carefully arranged to allow the design to flow across the wall without interuption. The skill which was needed to achieve this perfection is hard to describe, but one imagines a team of nineteenth century workers putting great craftmanship and not a little love into their work, to complete this effect of luxury. Sadly now as I looked, the silk was fadedd, loose in a few areas, dirty and stained in others and needing some new love to bring it back to life.
In cases like these, we conservators try hard to save everything possible, replace with new the minimum, and to treat the materials with great respect and reverance. We are like doctors looking at a fragile patient. We try to do no harm.
The light blue of the silk was now faded around the window reveals to a pleasant grey blue which set off the beautiful design of an oriental landscape, with small pavillions scattered across rock strewn gardens of cherry blossom and bamboo, reminiscent of that of fine porcelain.
Investigating the corner joints, I discovered that the vertical seams had been carefully inserted into slots cut into the wooden lathes and scured with narrow silk covered fillets. It would be fairly easy to release the silk from the frame, although great care would be needed in the full removal.
One wall seemed to have had a previous restoration, as the silk was somewhat looser in the stretch and part of the pictorial design did not quite match. I took reference photographs, made measurements of the wooden framing and many notes about the condition of the walls and wall coverings in regards to the windows and doorways.
Well, within a week an estimate was prepared, along with a working plan and materials list, and was submitted to the owners of the house. I heard no more for about eight months, in fact, just as I was giving up hope of ever getting the job.
Yes, we had the contract, we could go ahead as soon as we could arrange the work to fit in with our present commitments.
I visited the mansion again to make final arrangements, taking along a young lady conservator who was to do the preliminary work. She was delighted to be involved, and I had much faith in her ability to do an excellent job.
We started in early June, the weather in London was beautiful that year and the house was virtually ours, as both the family and their small staff had left for holidays in Italy. Only the hired caretaker remained, more of a live in security guard really, as his care taking duties were light, so we rarely saw him.
After a few days we had made inroads into removing the silk from two walls, each panel carefully photographed as it was taken down, whilst a condition report was prepared for future use, and diagrams made for the refitting.
At this point I was calłed away to an emergency situation in a gallery in the south of London, trying to save as much as I could from a fire which had ripped through after a poorly placed halogen spotlamp had set fire to a curtain. My assistant carried on at the mansion, I have always had full trust in her and was confodent that the job would go swimmingly.
Dealing with the fire damaged art was both messy and time consuming, but we got stuck into the job and concentrated on saving what we could.
A few days later, I recieved a frantic call from the office, could I go immediately to the mansion as there was some sort of problem, the reason was not stated as my assistant wanted to have me take charge of the situation.
I arrived early next day, and Lucy
asked me to come up to the ball room. She had removed almost all of the silk and the battens, carefully numbered were neatly stacked in the center of the dance floor. Only one wall of silk remained in place, the wall that had had evidence of earlier work. The other walls were now all cleaned of cobwebs and the light yellow of the plaster glowed in the sunlight from the windows.
Lucy had already told me that there was an unusual texture under the remaining silk, and now as I peeled it carefully back I could see that the wall was covered in a patchwork of small paper rectangles which had been distempered over. In some places there was evidence of mould and flaking of the surface.
We removed the remaining silk and battens, working carefully to do no damage to the wall beneath.
With the silk covering folded, and the battens numbered and stacked, we looked closer at the wall. In one section a paper rectangle was loose on the corner, so very gently and taking great care we gradually eased it away from the wall. It took nearly an hour to remove, but came away undamaged. On closer inspection it seemed to have something written upon it, but the distemper on one side and the thick mould on the other made it difficult to see. I placed it into an acid free envelope, and Lucy took it back to the workshop that evening, and handed it on to our paper restorer.
Two days passed, with me back at the fire scene, and Lucy having a short break with family. Then I got a call from the office, what did I want done with the fiver?
It turned out that after working on the paper rectangle for a couple of days, the paper restorer had discovered that under the mould and distemper, the rectangle was actually an old English white paper banknote. A five pound banknote!
I called Lucy, and put her in charge of removing the rest of the rectangles from the wall, and arranged for the paper restorer to be on hand to help with the job.
He set up a small on site workshop and lab in the ball room, so that each banknote could be processed on site. In total three and a half thousand five pound notes were removed from the wall. It took the best part of six months to process them, with only six being deemed to fragile to save. Of course, the family were delighted with our find, even more so when the notes, presented at The Bank of England, were paid out in full face value. Seventeen thousand pounds, had been pasted onto the wall, but by whom?
Various ideas were put forward, but we suspect that the notes had been pasted onto the wall either at the time of the Wall Street crash of 1928, or had been hidden away there at some time during world war two, possibly for safe keeping by a family member who subsequently sadly died in the conflict. Whatever, it made the present family extreemly happy to have an unexpected windfall of money, which would be worth in excess of a quarter of a million pounds in todays money, taking inflation into consideration.
Well there you are, a most unusual find and a most unusual true story.
So, next time you move house or redecorate, be careful how you remove the wallpaper or covering, because I suspect that this was not the only hoard of banknotes safely stored for the future in that way.
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