Professional Builder visits the renovation of a Georgian property that once played host to Vincent Van Gogh.
When you think of Van Gogh, a peaceful existence in a leafy London borough would not be the picture that first comes to mind, but for a time at least this tortured soul would find contentment in our capital. Thanks to the present owners of the property, and the extensive renovation work undertaken by the experts at Triskele Conservation, a new generation of artists will now be sharing the former space of this impressionist genius.
Van Gogh spent a year in Stockwell from 1873, but the now blue-plaqued semi-detached building actually dates from the 1820s, and is an example of the many thousands of relatively quickly erected homes of the period. It was arguably the first great age of speculative urban residential development but, as exercises in maximising profit, the build quality of many Georgian homes was often lacking. What has saved them for posterity is the forgiving nature of the building materials then available. In the absence of more synthetic alternatives, timber frame, lime plaster and mortar, and linseed oil paints were all much in evidence, all of which are inherently durable and more elastic. In using as many of these traditional materials as possible, Triskele Conservation’s Conor Meehan is dedicated to the principles of the kind of honest repair that is destined to last, and in Livia Wang he has a client who is fully supportive of his approach.
“We started the project in June of 2018,” Livia explains, “and the house has since been completely renovated, with the addition of a single storey extension to the rear and a studio space at the end of the garden. There’s huge public interest in Van Gogh, so we’ll be conducting tours, but the building’s main function will be as a residency for artists. There’s also been a host of great finds under floorboards and in roof spaces that reveal the personal narratives of the inhabitants. We’ve been so pleased with what Conor and his team have done in also revealing just how the property was constructed and has been repaired over the years. Their approach is to maintain as much of what’s already in place as possible, and not to try and confuse what is new with what is old, and hopefully that will help demonstrate its entire history.”
In bringing an old property back to life, builders themselves will equally find more than they bargained for and that was certainly the case at Hackford Road. This was originally a terraced house, but two of the adjoining buildings were destroyed by wartime bombing. As a result, what was originally a party wall became a wholly unfit-for-purpose gable end, as Conor explains: “The exterior wall was only single skin thick, and was not connected to the floors or roof. Before we could affect any structural repairs, we had to remove the sand and cement render, reconnect the wall to the rest of the building, and then apply a stainless-steel mesh, which was then re-rendered with a lime solution. The roof had completely collapsed and the chimney stacks need to be reinforced with helical stitching. The front elevation had also suffered from the application of a wholly inappropriate sand and cement render, creating terrible damp problems, and this also had to be replaced with more breathable lime, and then finished with an exterior lime wash supplied by Rose of Jericho.”
Buildings move and breathe, and Triskele are dedicated to using materials that allow them to do just that, and that includes making their own lime plaster and mortar on site. Employing a hot lime mix method, limestone is burnt at up to 900ºC to produce quicklime. Adding water generates a vigorous reaction and a great deal of heat – hence the term hot mix. In the presence of sand and water these elements will fuse together to produce a very sticky and malleable material that can be used as mortar. The result is a far more breathable and flexible material than any modern alternative. It prevents damp by allowing walls to release moisture and its greater tolerance of movement means it won’t crack like sand and cement. It was that lime mix that was used to repoint the exterior walls to the rear, whilst inside the ancient art of plastering is revived.
In walls of this vintage, timber laths, attached to stud walls, provide a key for a base coat of lime plaster mixed with animal hair – the latter increasing the structure’s tensile strength. A float coat is added to achieve a level surface, followed by a top coat, and it is a process that Triskele have replicated in their repairs. On this job, Edward Bulmer Natural Paint provides the finish to the repaired lime plaster walls. This microporous product has the two-coat ease of application of an emulsion, but has breathable qualities close to lime wash. It won’t trap moisture in walls and is available in a range of natural colours.
Similarly, all the interior and exterior timbers benefit from two coats of Oricalcum Linseed Oil Paint. “This is a centuries old solution for protecting timber but its extended drying times meant it fell out of favour,” continues Conor. “Many modern coatings include acrylics or plastics, however, and these can fracture over time. A product based on linseed oil simply won’t do that, which makes it a much more long-lasting solution. Not only that, the use of a non-breathable paint on sills or sashes will accelerate decay, but linseed oil paint will not build up any moisture within the wood, whilst it also gives the timber a beautiful character in the final finish.”
Continuing that principle of only removing what couldn’t possibly be retained all the timber sash windows are original, except for the top floor, where the compromised roof space had left them damaged beyond repair, whilst the 1920s light switches have been preserved by the electrician. Triskele’s highly skilled lime plasterer, Phil Bailey has fashioned ceiling roses in lime plaster by hand, and staircases and skirting have been enhanced with a beeswax solution. “This is still a traditional Georgian build, with load bearing masonry sidewalls and timber infill construction, and we’ve maintained that original brick, plaster and timber palette of materials,” concludes Livia. Moreover, because it will ultimately be a creative space, we wanted it to be a testament to the skills of craftspeople of years gone by and today, and that’s what Triskele Conservation have delivered.”
For further information on the Vincent Van Gogh house visit vangoghhouse.co.uk