When it comes to decorative paint finishes such as faux marble, gilding and grisaille – the name of Nat Clements is one deeply engrained in Irish restoration and interior design circles. Over the past 20 years his expertise has enhanced many notable public buildings as well as private residences like his ancestor, another Nat Clements, who built Phoenix Lodge in the mid-18th century now Áras an Uachtaráin.
Clements is currently working on an OPW commission in Kilkenny Castle, restoring a nursery as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the building. “It was painted in the mid-19th century, but there is no evidence [of the nursery] other than this,” he explains showing me a faded photograph of the room taken by a local priest years ago.
“We think it would have been a yellow room with blue and terracotta woodwork with an upper frieze of acanthus, and a swag and tail drop – motifs evolved from the late Regency period.” The original freehand beech leaf motif murals will be carefully measured and reproduced using stencils.
The biggest challenge is the creation of age and atmosphere. It has got to look like it has always been here. It has to take on the patina of age – it’s what’s called applied atmosphere – set dressing in a way,” he explains.
Big House projects
In the centre of the room on the floor lie the trappings of his trade. There’s an arsenal of paints: gesso, ink, flat oils and gold leaf to make the final surface authentic. He mixes all the colours himself – yellow ochre, raw umber, ultramarine and cobalt – “colours used 200-300 years ago” bemoaning the fact that traditional materials such as flat oil paints are getting harder to source with fewer suppliers.
His many big house projects have included Lissadell, Castle Leslie, Marlfield and Fota as well as convents and churches including the Convent of Mercy in Birr, St Peter’s in Phibsboro and St Malachys in Belfast. “With the big houses in Ireland there are so many interventions that make [restoration] interesting. Social history influences decorative history and sloshing the paint brush gives you time to think about them. You can’t turn the clock back to 1760, you have got to take into account that there might have been a good marriage that brought in money and expensive wallpaper and paints. In houses such as Mountstewart and Ballywalter in the North, they were always trying to outdo each other. It was like Celtic Tiger Ireland.”
He is no stranger to big houses –his early years were spent in Lough Rynn, then the Clements family estate in Co Leitrim – nor to restoration, as his mother Joanne was a china restorer. After his parents separated, he moved with her and his siblings from Somerset to Limerick, eventually settling in Blackrock where his mother’s studio was attached to the kitchen. He remembers as a teenager coming home from school “finding china mice and monkey bands in the oven and the smell of something boiling in a pot on the stove” (in the throes of restoration).
His first job after school was as a restoration assistant with Paul Cooke in Dublin and later for auctioneer Alain Chawner doing valuations and auctions. After taking a course in gilding and paint decoration with Roger Newton in the UK, his first big break was in 1985 recreating an Art Deco bar in TCD’s new dining hall. “I marbleised the ceiling on the flat of my back,” he recalls. Another project at the time was in Fota House for architect John O’Connell, later followed by one in Marlfield House for architect Alfred Cochrane where he painted the walls and ceilings of the state room in tandem with Marina Guinness’s decoupage prints.
In 1990 he set up Clements & Moore with Christopher Moore, the historic paint specialist, and as business grew, restoration work included a private house in Portugal, an Irish pub in Madrid, a hotel in Marbella as well as work in Italy and at home.
In recent years, married to engineer Alicia Parsons and with young twins, he has travelled less so as to spend more time at home in Birr. A recent memorable job was restoring a 17th-century Italian four poster bed and his next major project is restoring 16 marbleised pilasters in the main gallery of Mountstewart in Northern Ireland for the National Trust.
Ask him what his proudest achievement is and he says it is St Malachy’s Church in Belfast which won a RIBA award. “We had a great architect and a great client who had real passion and understanding. We had 260 Gothic panels to restore. We had to measure every single one and do the work in studio. We repainted St Brendan, regilded organ pipes, gessoed, marbelised and gilded the pulpit and did sign-writing in Irish. You had to keep pulling things out of the bag. I was getting a lesson in theology”.
He dislikes the current vogue for “50 shades of grey” so fashionable in modern domestic interiors. “It’s metrosexual, I suppose. Grey is like concrete to me. I love green and I love red. I love colour, it changes your mood. I love the idea of creating the patina of a weathered old farm door in 50 shades of green. When you get to work with old and new you get to understand the process of colour more. Our ancestors got it right and it is what we draw our inspiration from now.”