Cornice Restoration in the Government House Dining Room
Using skills honed in the historic castles and churches of Scotland, Scott McMillan of McMillan Heritage Plastering is repairing the intricate ceilings of the Government House formal dining room.
"You can't just go buy it," he says of a damaged section of cornice painstakingly removed for repair and restoration.
This week, Mr McMillan – a National Trust of Queensland award-winning Master Craftsman - is restoring a roughly 2-metre by 2-metre section of cornice in the dining room. The section was likely damaged during work in the ceiling cavity above, possibly decades ago.
He says the trick - or really, the art - is to "reinstate and match perfectly" any new cornice to the existing section, which has adorned the ceiling in this grand room for over a century.
The restoration process begins with the careful removal of the sagging section above the fireplace, mindful of not disturbing heritage wallpaper and surrounding furnishings.
Samples of the "enrichments", or original decorative plaster, are "redressed" - with numerous layers of paint removed by soaking and heating it before submerging it in so-called box moulds filled with silicone.
At the same time a "running mould" is made from zinc or aluminium, carefully matched to the shape of the cornice profile and “horsed up” onto a handheld contraption that is run along a length of plaster of paris. The process is repeated until a new piece of base cornice is created, old style!
Mr McMillan says the idea is not simply to replace the sections of cornice, but to "respect original integrity and preserve what you can".
A member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), he follows strict guidelines and principles for preservation, with an “obligation to preserve as much of the existing material as possible”.
In the case of the Dining Room cornice, that's predominantly sand and lime and plaster of Paris.
"We don't want to go in guns blazing and bash it together. It's about preservation and reinstatement, if necessary," he says.
"It's the procedure - so much work goes in - doesn't matter if it's small or big, the same procedure applies."
Mr McMillan spent more than a decade as a heritage plasterer in Scotland, serving his apprenticeship with a contractor for Historic Scotland: "So, lots of castles and churches."
Asked how he gets by as a heritage specialist in Brisbane, with its distinct lack of castles, Mr McMillan says, "Every job has its own little challenges, and you have to be a bit of a problem solver."
The entire process of restoring even this small section of damaged cornice at Government House will take about a week.
"It took us two days just to set up and protect all the heritage fabrics and furniture," Mr McMillan said.
He will then set about assessing other areas of the historic mansion to advise on other necessary restorations.
He says he has time, given the lack of other similar historic public buildings in Brisbane: "We must have restored most of them by now," he laughs.