woodwork, millwork, stairs

Re-carving History

A master carver has re-created the historic woodwork for the 18th-century Bishop Sherlock’s Room in London’s Fulham Palace.

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By Martha McDonald
The summer home for the bishops of London from 704 until 1973, Fulham Palace, is located in the heart of London on the Thames River. With more than 13 acres of gardens, it offers a respite from the noise and clamor of the city. Over the years, the bishops added to the palace, creating a collection of buildings in various styles. More recently, the palace had fallen into disrepair, and portions had been stripped and turned into apartments.

Now managed jointly by Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the Fulham Palace Trust, the palace is undergoing an extensive five-year renovation. The first phase, completed in the fall of 2006, included the restoration of Bishop Sherlock’s Room, which will become the heart of the revamped palace. The bishops’ former bedrooms in the East Quadrangle were also restored for use as offices while the quadrangle’s public rooms have been refurbished as a museum, café and gallery. The museum is based in two major historic rooms: Bishop Howley’s dining room and the Porteous Library.

One of the most significant parts of the restoration of Bishop Sherlock’s Room was the re-carving of the original woodwork and moldings. Agrell Architectural Carving of San Rafael, CA, and London, England, was brought in to produce all of the wood carving for the room. The 3,000-hour project included egg-and-dart and acanthus moldings and Classical Corinthian capitals. Bishop Sherlock’s coat of arms sits nested in the carved broken pediment of the main door.

“The focal point of the restoration was Bishop Sherlock’s Room,” says master carver Ian Agrell. “It was completely gutted. There were a few bits and pieces but virtually nothing else. The architects could discern certain elements by the marks and the shadows on the wall.”

Agrell worked with the architect, Thomas Ford & Partners of London; the client, Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the Fulham Palace Trust; and the London-based interior consultant and conservator Plowden & Smith to re-create the design of the woodwork, based on the meager findings in the room and on the style of the mid-1700s, when the room was built. The contractor for the project was Mansell Construction Ltd. of Croydon, England, and Plowden & Smith did the millwork and installation.

“There was a huge emphasis on trying to make sure the elements relate to the period,” says Agrell. “We knew the room had been built in the mid-1700s, so we did research on what the decoration might have looked like at that time. There was nothing left of the original fireplace, so we had to completely re-create it.”

“The carving work undertaken by Mr. Agrell is simply exceptional,” says Dr. Scott Cooper, director of Fulham Palace. “It is very reassuring to those of us that work in the field of building conservation to know that the craft of Classical wood carving is alive and well and finding such masterful expression.”

The project involved approximately 20 different elements for four door frames and the very elaborate fireplace. “It was very complex,” says Agrell. “There were different moldings, different profiles in the fireplace, door surrounds and in the casework around the doors and windows. There was also carving in the frieze of the fireplace, in the pediment over the main door and around the windows. The main door features a split pediment with the bishop’s coat of arms in the center.”

All of the carving was executed in pine, and then it was painted. “It was done in pine because that was the wood originally used for the carvings,” explains Agrell. “A lot of the work in England was done before mahogany and other woods were discovered. We used pine because that was the tradition at the time, and we wanted to follow that.”

Agrell adds that a 3,000-hour job is fairly typical for his firm. “We were called in for this job because we could deliver it more quickly,” he says. “We had 15 carvers working on it and could get it done in about six months.

“Our job is to turn up on time with a lot of beautifully carved wood. We don’t do any machine carving. It is all custom hand carved.”

Typically Agrell gets a flavor of the style that the client wants and then offers three options that range in complexity and cost. “In terms of budget, it doesn’t have to be complex to be good,” he says. “It has to be well designed to be good. You can have a simple design that is well executed that would cost far less than a complicated project. I wouldn’t work on a bad design. I would rather simplify the design than do some bad, complicated, expensive job.

“It was wonderful to have an opportunity to restore a room completely. You really feel in touch with the carvers who went before you. Only you and the carvers before you really understand the project. So you have this intimate feeling across the eons. It is quite moving.”

He adds that he got a similar feeling when working on the governor’s mansion in Utah. “It was carved by German and Austrian carvers at the end of the 19th century, and that work was stunning,” he says. “One hundred years later, we can really appreciate how good they were at their craft. I carve for future carvers. In 200 years time, I want someone to look at my work and say, ‘He really knew what he was doing.’”

All of Agrell’s carving work is done from drawings at one of his workshops in the U.K., the U.S. or the Far East. After doing the design work, he sends samples to the client to make sure everyone understands the project. Then while Agrell directs the carving, the management of the project is given over to one of his two managers, Marita Freese in Houston, TX, or Kate Agrell, his daughter, in London.

“We offer an historical design service,” says Agrell. “We have been doing this for 45 years now. We have a big library to assist customers in any style, whether it’s Baroque, Rococo or Gothic.”

When specifying wood carving, he suggests that clients select someone with experience. “It’s also important to look at samples so everyone understands what is going on,” he adds. “In addition, if you need advice on decoration, make sure you find someone who knows something about it. A lot of people aren’t familiar with Classical carved decoration.”

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