The Restoration Department recently brought in conservator Andy Compton to restore the composition ornament on the Hall fireplace mantel frieze. Composition ornament (or “compo”) is a putty-like material made from chalk, linseed oil, hide glue and pine rosin. When warm, it can be pressed into molds to produce elaborate decorative elements.

The Entrance Hall chimneypiece frieze, before restoration

Scottish immigrant George Andrews originally made Monticello’s composition ornament in Washington, DC. It is found on the first floor’s best rooms above fireplaces, doors, windows, and embellishes the entablatures. In the Hall, the frieze ornamentation is derived from the Corinthian temple of Antoninus and Faustina in Rome, and features griffins (symbols of vigilance and courage) and candelabras.

Conservator Andy Compton at work before hours

Prior to conservation, the frieze had suffered considerable losses. A number of rustic repairs had been made in the early-20th century, and the original detail was masked by many generations of overpaints. The process of restoring the compo involved first carefully removing several modern layers of paint (leaving all the Jefferson finishes untouched), sculpting replacement parts using material that is easily discernible by a trained analyst to be modern, and then priming and painting.

Conservator Andy Compton carefully removing a prior repair to the compo on the Hall fireplace mantel frieze.

The finished product reveals more of the original ornament’s impressive detail. We are now able to see the magnificent frieze in a state much closer to how it would have looked in Jefferson’s day.

The central elements on the Hall mantel frieze, before restoration and after restoration

We hope over the coming years to conserve more of the mansion’s compo in an effort to present Monticello as Jefferson would have seen it. On a tour, you can see the fireplace frieze for yourself in all its restored glory.

The Hall chimneypiece frieze, with fully restored composition ornament.