My colleague Claudia Fiocchetti and I have just finished this joint project, working on an unusual historic graffiti ceiling at the Eagle Pub in Cambridge.
The graffiti dates from the Second World War and includes names, squadron numbers and pictures made by servicemen, who were stationed in nearby air force bases. The entries span over a decade with additions from airmen with the US ‐ UK Berlin Air Lift, and beyond that into the 1950s.
Although a decorated ceiling of this sort is of considerable social and historical significance, it is ephemeral and was never designed to last; which in itself makes it interesting, as well as a conservation challenge.
The inscriptions were made using cigarette lighters, candles and lipstick. The layers of graffiti are interspersed with layers of varnish, the varnish layers themselves containing tobacco smoke and ambient deposits.
The complex structure and the intended appearance of the ceiling meant large-scale cleaning
would have been very complex and would risk damaging both the graffiti and the overall ambience of the space, so this project addressed only a very light surface clean of dust, the reduction of some areas of shine due to previous interventions, and concentrated on stabilisation of delaminating layers and securing vulnerable areas.
The main damage to the ceiling was severely flaking paint, as well as some cracks and losses. The main flaking seems to have been caused by an old water leak – the worst area was directly over the bar, which was also in the most vulnerable place due to the unstable environment there.
The conservation treatment consisted of: a light surface clean; consolidation of any unstable areas of plaster, cracks or delamination; filling and repairs of cracks and losses as necessary; reahesion of the flaking paint, this was done by injecting an adhesive behind the flakes (mainly carried out through lens tissue to avoid rising the loss of flakes), the flakes were then secured back into place with the application of heat with a heated spatula.
Below are some photos of the project and the ceiling, which is now secured. Obviously it will always be vulnerable, due to the nature of its construction, as well as its location in a busy bar, but it is now stable, the historic problem with the water pipes has been addressed, and with regular monitoring for any signs of deterioration which are then addressed by a conservator, it should continue to survive.
More information about the history of the ceiling can be found here, in an article which includes a complete drawn record of all the graffiti:
398th Org A Famous Ceiling
and here is a more general piece about The Eagle and the ceiling: