Celestial Ceiling

“The dialogue is created which does not normally exist between Historic Scotland and other partners, private or voluntary sector or anybody else. That is what is really unique here.”  Chris Fremantle, cultural historian and project participant

“This is a very renaissance process.”  Michael Bath, Professor of Renaissance Studies (retired), University of Strathclyde and project participant

“I have valued the level of trust … it has been very liberating.”  Robert Orchardson, artist for the new painted ceiling

“I think this process made our life rich.”  Peter Schleiffer, commissioner and patron

Editor Anne Douglas

A4 (landscape) softcover, 64 pages
Includes a fold out A3 poster of the digital reconstruction
by John McGeoch of the original 16th century painted ceiling
Selling at £15
Published in 2005 by The Robert Gordon University
in collaboration with Duff House, Historic Scotland, 2005
ISBN: 1 901 085 81 3

The Celestial Ceiling project was developed in partnership with Charles Burnett of Duff House, Banff, the Schleiffer family of Cullen House, On the Edge Research and the artists John McGeoch and Robert Orchardson. Duff House, an Adams building, is part of the National Galleries of Scotland. The challenge posed by the research partner was how to change the image of the house from being simply a collection of national treasures to a more responsive cultural and historical resource. The project moved from the general issue of visitor numbers to a unique creative opportunity, stemming ironically from the tragic loss of an important piece of heritage in the locale. Charles’ knowledge and expertise in Scottish history connected the researchers with the Schlieffer family, owners of the south tower in Cullen House, which in 1987 had been destroyed by fire – including a unique 16th century tempera painted ceiling. The tower had been restored but the painting on the wooden ceiling was lost forever. The Schleiffer family wanted to contribute to the continuing heritage of the building by commissioning new art.

The project grew in ambition and scale and two artists were commissioned to respond to the challenge. John McGeoch works with digital technology. Through a collaborative process of researching and identifying visual fragments in various archives the material for a complete digital reconstruction of the original ceiling was sourced. John produced a large scale interactive projection on public display for the first time in Duff House. The technology enabled immersive engagement with the painting, and a capacity for zooming into details which no-one in recent history had ever seen. The second commission offered Robert Orchardson an opportunity to make a 21st century response to the original ceiling. His new painted ceiling in the space of the original encapsulates the values of the patrons – optimism, risk-taking, forward thinking. Robert’s painting offers a visionary contemporary counterpoint to the original yet draws on its ‘celestial’ language.

The two art works are thought provoking in different ways but the Celestial Ceiling publication clearly presents the On the Edge research methodology as a radical departure from traditional ways of commissioning new art. Workshops, two ‘gatherings’ and various evaluation ‘soundings’ developed the project in a reflective and generative way. The conversations at the gatherings present the shared thinking from a range of perspectives – history, heritage, art criticism, curation, art practice. Celestial Ceiling provokes new thinking on the relationship between contemporary art, built heritage and patronage through the interaction of public and private realms.


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  1. […] 80s.  If you are looking for more information on the Cullen House ceiling get hold of a copy of ‘Celestial Ceiling’, the publication of the On The Edge Research project.  The book documents the process of remaking […]

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