13 Apr 2023
by Geanina Beres

Green flower patterned wall paper. Some aspects of green are muted, the others almost neon green.
Green is a popular colour but actually quite difficult to make - the shade on this wallpaper sample was very popular (but sadly deadly) in Victorian times. (© WikiCommons)

From churches and train stations to office buildings and the houses we live in – our heritage is all around us. Older buildings connect us to the past and the communities that used them before us. They give a place a unique character and help us to create a sense of community identity. Especially where they were built by artisans and craftspeople using a wide range of materials and techniques that we might not use anymore, like unusual glasswork, ironwork or wall paintings. 

While older buildings were often made of high quality materials built to last, they still need conservators to look after them. To make sure they are protected against decay and neglect so that their stories survive to inspire present and future generations. Here are 5 unusual materials conservators work on in buildings – next time you visit a historic house, look out for them!

Deadly wallpaper

Sometimes remnants of historic wallpaper can be found in older houses. These are very interesting finds as they can suggest how a room was used, how its occupants lived, and what was fashionable in a particular period.

Wallpaper was very popular in upper and middle-class 19th century homes, particularly the styles featuring a vivid eye-catching green pigment. Unfortunately, this bright green pigment was arsenic-based and highly toxic. While arsenic was known to be poisonous, it seems people believed that only by licking the walls would they get poisoned. However, it can also be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Damp and heat encourage the release of toxic vapors, and flaking ink can easily be inhaled. Entire families became ill or died in the mid-19th century, which finally led to formal regulations on the use of arsenic. It goes without saying that today’s conservators are extra careful, taking loads of precautions when working with this pigment.

A dark wood, beautifully carved box, with patterned blue, red and white paper lining the box.
Toxic paper isn't just found on walls - East Riddlesden Hall has an oak box lined with poisonous wallpaper. (© National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel)

'Trippy' stone floors

From natural stone flooring in Ancient Egypt to Turkish marble floor tiles, stone has been loved by many cultures for its durability and beauty. Over the centuries though it will wear down, and the resulting dips, hollows, and loose tiles can become hazardous. Plus, while all natural stone is durable, some varieties like marble are more porous, which makes them more brittle and inclined to soak up stains and soiling. This is why red wine is banned in many museums - because of the risk of spillages! Conservators can repair damaged areas, replace missing pieces and offer advice on care and cleaning.  
A marble covered room, the walls accented with a light free and the floor with white, grey and beige marble curved designs.
Do NOT bring red wine in here! Berrington Hall Dairy's beautiful 18th century floor. (© National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel)

Toxic timber doors

Doors make a big impression on people because we interact with them to enter a building. There are hundreds of examples of old doors, and they contribute a lot to a building’s character. Door handles, knockers and letterboxes can be lovely design elements often with a distinctive patina, the clear sign of many generations of use. There’s no need to replace most old doors; they can easily be repaired or upgraded for better security or draught-proofing...BUT... there is one element in door design that requires particular care: old paint! 

Lead paint was traditionally used on doors on Georgian and Victorian buildings. Lead is harmful to human health and removing paint from old surfaces is potentially hazardous. However, because lead based paints are incredibly hard-wearing, and very beautiful, it is possible to use them to redecorate Grade I and II* listed properties, using paint supplied under licence from Historic England. If the building is not Grade I or II* listed then a suitable alternative is modern linseed oil paint which uses titanium dioxide as the pigment.

A collage of doors. The first showing a blue door, the second focusing on a doorknocker, the third a cream door painted with red designs.

Delightful door designs, with some potentially deadly elements?! (© WikiCommons 1.Jim Osley 2.Wellcome Collection 3.Public Domain)

Poisonous windows

Examples of stained glass have survived since the Middle Ages. It was also a favourite feature of Victorian homes and was popular with the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. Stained glass can tell conservators about a building’s history, for example of its past patrons or the way it was used. However, because stained glass windows are part of the building’s skin, protecting it from rain, wind and sun, they are particularly vulnerable to environmental deterioration and need to be carefully monitored. Since many conservators working with stained glass will come across lead (in the frames), they also need to take precautions to protect themselves from lead poisoning.
Three brightly coloured stained glass windows depicting two indistinguishable figures walking through a field.
Unusual glass at St Christopher's Church, Warden Hill - you can visit and find out more over Heritage Open Days this September!

Guardian gates

Iron railings became popular in the early 18th century, when most gates and railings were made from wrought iron or cast iron, which were easy to find and affordable. Symmetry and uniformity are the hallmarks of Georgian railings design, while Victorian examples may be more fanciful and ornate. Artworks then, but also with a serious purpose - providing a safety barrier to prevent falls and keeping intruders out. While iron is strong and versatile, metal railings are vulnerable to the weather, vandalism and lack of maintenance. Fractures, impact damage, or trapped water are common problems. Conservators can spot signs of damage or decay and carry out appropriate treatments such as cleaning and repainting.
A decretive double metal gate with two white stone carved pillars either side. Then two single gates either side of that. 2 policemen standing guard.
Kew Garden's glorious gate c.1800 - a beautiful barrier that requires careful conservation. (© WikiCommons.whatsthatpicture)

Find out more

Discover more stories related to this year's festival theme, Creativity Unwrapped, on our blog:

Get involved! Meet the expert events are brilliant, and we want to encourage more of them!

  • Got a story/place to share? - Find out how you can join our festival community
  • What's on? - Listings will start to be published in June, and added to daily in the run up to the festival (8-17 September)