The iconic white tiled façade of The Picture House is an important part of the character of the cinema. A distinctive face that hints to the beauty and grandeur of our building whilst also representing a first welcome extending out to our audiences as we invite them to share in the stories we have to tell.
Our façade is made of the distinct Burmantofts architectural faience produced by The Leeds Fireclay Co. Ltd (formerly The Burmantofts Company, named after the area of Leeds where the factory could be found).
Written by Wendy Cook, with photography by Ollie Jenkins.
Back in 2019/20 our team at Page\Park and Buro Happold started working to investigate the façade, allowing us to better understand it’s general condition and what the appropriate approach was for its restoration.
The investigation involved carefully cutting out a section of the existing faience. This revealed the steel structure underneath so it’s condition could be assessed and the extent of the work required could be established.
Given the importance of the cinema’s façade both historically and emotionally to those who love it, it was essential that along with our core team we also engaged with the right specialists in this process. Darwen Terracotta are an internationally recognized terracotta and faience specialist made of a team of crafts people with decades of experience behind them. Other projects include new installations like the stunning front elevation of the Leeds Playhouse and Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex. Their restoration projects are vast and include the Natural History Museum and the Victoria Quarter, Leeds.
As well as the intrusive exploration, that early site visit also involved Darwen taking measurements of the existing structure to produce drawings for the blocks which require replacement due to the extent of their damage. Additionally a sample was taken for comparison to try match the glazing of our façade, it’s texture and colouration. A couple of replacement blocks were produced at that time to refill the initial damaged sections which were removed to enable the investigation.
Now edging into Summer 2022 and with scaffolding wrapped around the Picture House to provide access to the higher levels of the building we have unusually close access to the façade again. This makes it easier to better appreciate the incredible detail of the building and toll the years have taken. Where possible the original blocks will be maintained but carefully introducing replacement sections where particularly extensive damage has been incurred (mainly several large cracks) allows us to bring the cinema closer back to its original condition. We can also be more confident we are getting it to a state which will keep it still standing for another 100 years.
As Darwen are working busily on the necessary replacement blocks we took the opportunity to visit their factory in Blackburn and learn about the production process.
Understanding, and appreciating, the craft involved in producing these pieces helps us to better understand every part of how the Picture House is put together and how we can better take care of it from now on.
We were lucky to be taken around the site by Jon Wilson, the Director at Darwen. As he patiently talked us through the shrinkage of the clay moulds that must be anticipated to a mm, the precision of the drying and firing processes and the art of finding the right glaze to if not mirror (as that is rarely possible) to truly compliment the old it felt like the cinema was in the hands of a combination of a scientist, an architect, and an artist.
At the end of the tour, standing in a room surrounded by small samples of glazes from projects that stretched both across the globe and across history it was moving to see our little Picture House’s name scrawled in pen across a section about 20cm in length. Jon and his wonderful team at Darwen can never fully understand what it means to *me* to help preserve the Picture House. But conversely, I will never fully understand what it means to be part of someone else’s craft and how the Picture House fits in a history of architecture and manufacturing that is immense and beautiful. The stresses and challenges of a construction project are significant at times but there are days like this that put it in to perspective and that is an incredible gift.