England’s painted past is at risk, English Heritage has warned, as the charity revealed the catalogue of threats causing the country’s precious wall paintings to deteriorate and decay. From the damp English climate, to failed early 20th century restoration attempts, to the very buildings they are housed in, these irreplaceable artworks – some even older than those in the Sistine Chapel – risk disappearing from view altogether. As a result, English Heritage has launched an appeal to support the conservation of these irreplaceable treasures.
English Heritage cares for 77 wall paintings, the country’s largest and most significant collection, stretching as far back as the painted walls at Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent to the Victorian gothic decoration at St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal in North Yorkshire. Many of the wall paintings in the collection are at medieval abbeys, priories and churches, ranging from simple decoration to large-scale religious scenes and include the internationally-important art at St Mary’s Church, Kempley in Gloucestershire.
England’s wall paintings are at risk from a number of factors and each faces a unique combination of threats including:
The weather: Unlike the well-preserved paintings in France and Italy’s warmer climates, England’s wall paintings are being increasingly affected by damp and wetter weather, which is causing damage to their fragile structure.
Poor past restoration: Advances in conservation practice have shown that previous restoration efforts from the early 20th century have, in fact, done more harm than good as substances such as soluble nylon (originally intended to prevent damage) are causing increased flaking.
The ancient buildings they are in: Unlike traditional paintings on canvas, wall paintings are fixed to their historic surroundings, which means that all the challenges these centuries old medieval or even Roman buildings face, the paintings face. Achieving optimum conditions for conservation can be extremely complex.
English Heritage is undertaking a condition audit of all the wall paintings in its care to accurately assess the extent of the deterioration and set out the conservation solution for each. Meanwhile, the charity’s experts have recently undertaken urgent conservation work on those wall paintings most at risk, including medieval paintings at Longthorpe Tower in Peterborough, First World War graffiti at Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire, and securing the Archer Pavilion roof at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. This conservation can involve a range of techniques, including scientifically examining layers of ancient paint and using specialist multispectral imaging to help reveal a painting’s condition otherwise invisible to the naked eye. The work also includes undoing earlier well-meaning but outdated methods of conservation and applying specialist mortar to stabilise fragile and flaking plaster.
The highly-skilled conservation comes at a high cost and English Heritage is asking the public to help it to protect England’s wall paintings for future generations by supporting the charity’s appeal at: www.english-heritage.org.uk/wallpaintings
Rachel Turnbull, English Heritage’s Senior Collections Conservator, said: “Wall paintings are the most challenging type of art to care for, 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.
“If they are to survive for future generations to enjoy, we need the public’s help today to repair their buildings, stabilise their structures and protect them from damp and decay before time runs out.”
English Heritage became an independent charity in 2015 and now relies more and more on the generosity of its members, visitors, and each property’s local community to support its work.
‘Save Our Story’ Appeal:
£20 can pay for specialist mortar to be mixed and used to repair plaster damage
£40 can pay for the consolidation of powdering and flaking surfaces to combat deterioration
£75 can pay for expert multispectral imaging, revealing a painting’s condition otherwise invisible to the naked eye
To support the appeal, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/wallpaintings