Marching through the paint layers of history—revealing the hidden secrets of Provisional Parliament House (Part 1)
Napoleon Bonaparte said that an army marches on its stomach. The same might be said of a parliament. From 1927 to 1988 parliamentarians and general staff marched to the south wing of Provisional Parliament House to eat and drink in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Refreshment Rooms. Nowadays the hospitality and catering tradition continues with regular meetings, conferences, weddings and special events held in the Members’ Dining Room. Like much of Provisional Parliament House, the Members’ Dining Room features the Inter War Stripped Classical style so distinctive of the architect of the building, John Smith Murdoch. Today the rooms are understated with a light, neutral wall colour offset by timber panelling and fittings but, as we have discovered, it wasn’t always like that.
We are currently undertaking a refurbishment of the Members’ Dining Room so that the space meets the requirements of a contemporary function venue, yet protects, reveals and communicates the rare and significant historical features. In the planning phase a conservator, Gillian Mitchell, undertook a series of paint scrapes to analyse the history of the paint colours on the walls. Working slowly and meticulously Gillian used a scalpel to cut out shapes in the surface paint and prised back the layers underneath to reveal, colour by colour and layer by layer, the renovation history. We know that the current yellow cream paint in the Members’ Dining Room was applied in 1995 but underneath that Gillian discovered pale blue, pinky-cream and light tan. All quite pedestrian, bland even. But underneath that was the treasure—evidence of an ornate decorative paint scheme that emphasised the key architectural features with green and tan rag washing, light cream, grey, tan and green trim and detailing in silver or gold gilt.
When these small windows to the past were opened we immediately went to the image collections to peer at historic photos of the Members’ Dining Room and, sure enough, the decorative paint scheme was there, often indistinct and frequently obscured but definitely there. In some ways this is not an enormous surprise. A similar paint scheme was discovered in the Private Dining Room in 2005 and, for the refurbishment of that space, the entire paint scheme was revealed by careful removal of the outer layers of paint.
So what to do about this hidden treasure in the Members’ Dining Room—reveal or proceed with applying a fresh coat of plain paint? Well, both. Over the next month Gillian will be exposing the decorative paint scheme in two sections of the Members’ Dining Room. These ‘reveals’ will be permanent and extensive enough to show all the colours and finishes and how they combine to produce the intended decorative effect. The remainder of the spaces will receive their fresh coat of paint, adding another layer to the renovation history. After filling up on Christmas fare we will tell you how we are marching along early next year.