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Restoration work on the breathtaking Empress Ballroom’s ceiling was completed earlier this year, just in time for the town’s prestigious, and fabulously glamorous Dance Festival.

With 13 thousand visitors from 63 nations, the festival was the perfect occasion to unveil the elaborate, newly repaired, plasterwork. For the patterned gold and white panels, surrounded by glass chandeliers hanging resplendent from the barrel-vaulted canopy, supported by ornate columns, have seen generations of dancers whirling beneath them over their 120-year life.

The ballroom was initially closed after plaster fell from the ceiling, until eight scaffolding pillars and a working floor could be erected for surveys; with protective measures put in place to allow events to continue whilst restoration work was carried out.

The scaffolding meant this architectural masterpiece could be seen close up for what is thought to have been the first time since the early 1930s, when the structure was being updated in the art deco style of the day.

Winter Gardens managing director Michael Williams said: “Being able to go up there and to physically touch that wonderful ceiling was amazing. For many years, I’ve sat there underneath it during various events, having no idea quite what was hidden in plain sight. Once the work is done, it will be good for another 120 years.”

Tending to repairs on such a precious piece of history required an expert team, and this came in the form of ornamental plastering company Hayles and Howe, who pride themselves in offering “exquisite attention to all the finest details for any decorative plasterwork.”

The high standard of craftsmanship carried out by the designers, sculptors and modellers has won the company accolades including the Queen’s Award, the Plasterer’s Trophy and Humber Silver Salver. Well versed in historical styles, from Gothic to Art Nouveau, Hayles and Howe’s work has included restoration and conservation work at the Grade II listed Dominion Theatre in London, and a major new build project in Pueblo Colorado USA.

Describing their process, a team member said: “We investigate to see how the panels were made. Plaster panels intact are selected to match the broken panels and carefully cut from the ceiling, then transported to the Hayles and Howe workshop in Bristol. Any panels with patch repairs are done onsite where the panel remains in place. For a replacement panel, a mould of the existing panel is poured in the workshop using silicon rubber which allows perfect reproductions to be made. The new panel is cast using plaster, hessian mesh and timber laths for reinforcement and left to set overnight. The panel is then carefully removed from the silicone mould and transported to site. The broken panel is removed from the ceiling and the new panel is fitted in its place. “

The Empress Ballroom’s ceiling, with its superb acoustics, has echoed to the sounds of an eclectic variety of events throughout its history, from lavish afternoon tea dances to the assembly of gas envelopes for the R.33 airship during World War I. It’s been enjoyed by millions, and will be enjoyed by millions more to come. Whether that be at concerts, political conferences, or gatherings of pigeon fanciers, magicians and punk rockers, there is much more history to be made beneath those newly splendid panels.

Come and see them on one of the Winter Gardens Guided Tours.

Taking around 90 minutes, it includes a tea or coffee in the Mazzei Café, and costs £10pp. Book online here or call 01253 625252.


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