One of the endearing things about stereotypical images and reputations is the array of wonders that lie concealed beneath them. In the Cotswolds, for example, it is perfectly possible, by reputation, to imagine a land inhabited by hobbits – a fantastical place of cute villages and self-satisfied folk. There are, admittedly, plenty of pretty corners and no doubt there are, here and there, pockets of smugness. But, between bouts of clog-dancing, maypole-skipping and chattering, quite a lot of other things go on. Take lime, for example, and the art of the fresco. Fresco paintings are almost invariably associated with medieval and Renaissance Italy – Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel to take the most famous and perhaps the finest example. Here, the Reformation, the Puritans and the Victorians pretty much obliterated our contribution, although traces remain here and there (look at Kempley, look at Hailes – poor fare by comparison with Florence and Rome, but who knows what we lost?)
The art itself – craft, if you prefer - has almost gone the same way. But a few individuals hang on to the old ways, notwithstanding the obliviousness of the world. Sally Ellwood is one such and here she is working wonders when she can and not a soul knows about it. To hell with concrete – what about lime and fresco?
'Fresco' is Italian for 'fresh' and, in terms of art, refers to painting on fresh lime render. Lime because unlike concrete, it breathes. Allowing air and moisture to come and go, it becomes an organic part of the structure to which it is applied, removing harmful salts from the surrounding fabric. Buildings move naturally and when they do lime moves with it and repairs its own wounds. Concrete is quick and easy but it does not have these living qualities possessed by lime. The painting of frescoes is possible on lime because of a magic scientific cycle: limestone (calcium carbonate) is burnt to a high temperature; slaked in water to produce a smooth putty (calcium hydroxide); and exposed again to the air as a wash, mortar or plaster, to reabsorb carbon dioxide and harden back to calcium carbonate.
Fresco painting is carried out while the render is still fresh. Pure pigment is used with water - no binder is necessary as the carbon dioxide absorption process acts as a fixer. The result is painting of a particularly luminous quality, which, become part of the render itself, lasts for hundreds of years. Once the lime is applied it will start to dry and it is here that timing and careful preparation are essential. The skill lies in combining an understanding of the material with the skills of an artist: the design is created on paper,;scaled up to the surface in question (a wall, or even a panel); sketched onto the first coat of lime, which has already cured; and then completed freehand onto the final application of render before it sets, usually within a day. No alterations can be made once the brush has made its mark. The result is that every fresco, or even every part of a fresco, has its own character. It is a wonderful thing, a real working art that is both beautiful and practical.
Sally also practises the arts of sgraffito (engraving into plaster) and of pargeting. Pargeting was once common across England on timber-framed houses, which provied natural framed canvases for modelling three-dimensional designs onto plaster.
Cotswold Journeys can organise private classes with Sally for any of the processes above. Please contact us for more.