ENGLISH HERITAGE has launched an appeal, Save Our Story, to ensure that rare and ancient wall-paintings in religious and other historic buildings in its care can be conserved for future generations.
They range from the earliest medieval paintings in Britain, in the Norman church of St Mary’s, Kempley, in Gloucestershire, once described as “Britain’s own Sistine Chapel” by Sir Simon Jenkins, to the extravagant Victorian decoration of another St Mary’s, at Studley Royal, in North Yorkshire.
The works are most at risk from conditions in the buildings they adorn, and from earlier attempts at conservation.
The senior collections conservator at English Heritage, Rachel Turnbull, said: “Wall paintings are particularly vulnerable. If one needs specialist attention, we can’t just move it to a place of safety, like you do with a painting. And the issues you might encounter in terms of condition are way more complicated. It’s not just conservation, its conservation architects, surveyors, and so on. It’s very difficult to control the environmental conditions in these places.”
Unlike France or Italy, where warmer climates help preservation, wall paintings in England are increasingly affected by damp and wetter weather, which damages their fragile structure. Also, previous restoration in the early 20th century has done more harm than good. In one example, soluble nylon, originally intended to prevent damage, is causing increased flaking.
At Studley Royal, weakness in the 19th-century stained-glass windows is allowing moisture to penetrate the depictions of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained by the architect William Burges. In Kempley, 12th-century images drawn from Bible stories and showing terrifying visions of demons and eternal damnation are under threat from past conservation. “Materials have been used there — in good faith — which now are potentially causing damage,” Ms Turnbull said.
“We intend to have a very specific investigation into where and what they are, and how we can remove them or rectify any problems they are causing. We are very cautious: we don’t want to be part of the story of well-meaning but ill-fated restoration attempts — we want to be part of the conservation story.”
The work involves a range of techniques, including scientifically examining layers of ancient paint, using specialist multi-spectral imaging to help reveal the condition of a painting that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye, and applying specialist mortar to stabilise fragile and flaking plaster.
“Wall paintings are the most challenging type of art to care for,” Ms Turnbull said, “but they offer a precious insight into England’s story. For thousands of years, people of the past have left little traces, glimpses into their everyday lives through richly decorated wall-paintings. Be they domestic or religious, these artworks tell a story about the people who painted them, and the communities who lived or worshipped in these buildings centuries ago.”
Many are in medieval ecclesiastical houses, and vary from simple decoration to large-scale religious scenes.
English Heritage’s appeal will help to fund a systematic five-year condition audit of all 77 of its wall paintings, which will then continue on a rolling basis. “You get to the end of the five years and have to start again, because in these buildings it is difficult to control the environment,” Ms Turnbull said. “It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge: we never stop.”