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Historic ceiling restored to its former glory

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 24, 2012

  • Left: The finished ceiling after five months of restoration work by Rene Rice, right. Above, the ceiling as it looked before Rene started work

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Gleaming white swirling vines once again amble overhead, caressing a mass of delicate flowers, leaves and feathers.

This intricate 17th century ceiling has been skilfully restored after fire ripped through a Grade II* former merchant's house at Totnes, south Devon.

Set in a first floor room, the ceiling is adorned with the town arms, Prince of Wales feathers and the initials CP.

Money to pay for the piece was collected through public subscription following a visit in 1625 by Charles I when he was still Prince of Wales.

The room in the house on Fore Street was destroyed just before Christmas 2009 and large parts of the ceiling were ruined.

But it has been transformed thanks to five months of painstaking work.

The restoration involved applying an earth-clay base coat to oak laths with a stronger lime coat washed over the top.

Specialists examining the layers believe they were blackened during the 1990 fire that destroyed the nearby East Gate Arch.

The man behind the remarkable restoration, which has saved one of the town's most ornate and historically important ceilings, is conservator Rene Rice.

Rene, who lives in Radstock, Somerset, and trained at Weymouth College, was involved in the restoration of the rococo ceiling at one of England's finest mansions, Prior Park in Avon. He said: "The Totnes ceiling was very badly smoke-damaged – four fifths remained intact and a fifth needed to be remade.

"Some sections I had to cast, some I had to template and some I had to model by hand and sculpture in situ. It was quite a difficult job – but I did have photographs to work from and salvaged pieces to provide a pattern guide."

Nils White, South Hams District Council's senior conservation planning officer, was drafted in to make sure the ceiling was restored to its original condition. He said: "It was a bit of an anxious time making sure this important and sensitive historic structure was properly restored – both agreeing the right methods of repair in the first place and then keeping up the momentum to ensure the work got done.

"So it's really gratifying to see this wonderful ceiling restored so beautifully, especially having seen the craftsmanship involved at first hand."

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