This month sees the launch of a new website designed to showcase one of the most important sets of medieval wall paintings to be found in East Anglia. The Lakenheath wall paintings website is the final stage in a project designed to conserve and interpret the superb examples of medieval art. The wall paintings, all located in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath, have recently undergone a £54,000 programme of conservation which will ensure their preservation for many years to come.
The Lakenheath Wall Paintings Project was established after it was realised that the wall paintings in the church were in dire need of conservation. Having first been uncovered in the late 19th century the paintings had been exposed to the elements for over a century and had begun to suffer a number of problems that threatened their survival. All the paintings had been damaged by historic leaks in the roof and a general build up of dirt and grime. More worryingly, certain of the medieval images were found to be actually detaching themselves from the walls upon which they were painted. Urgent conservation work was needed to stop them simply falling off the walls.
The physical conservation work was carried out in the early months of 2009 by a specialist team from the Perry Lithgow Partnership and largely financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The images were all cleaned and stabilised. In some cases this actually meant injecting lime slurry behind the wall paintings themselves to re-attach them to the walls. However, after five weeks of continuous work, in sub zero temperatures, the paintings were finally declared to be stable once again. A number of major discoveries were made during the conservation work. Most importantly it was recognised that the church actually contained far more paint schemes than previously thought.
Initial reports believed that the church contained three or four separate paint schemes. However, the research carried out during the project indicated that the church actually contains five or six different schemes – the earliest of which dates back to the 1220s. This early scheme also turned out to be one of the most complete, making Lakenheath church one of the few places in England where it is possible to see exactly what the inside of the church would have looked like nearly 800 years ago.
The new website is designed to be a permanent public record for the conservation project. As well as containing details of all the medieval paintings at Lakenheath, the site has educational resources, details of the conservation process and the problems faced by the conservators. The new site also launched the ‘Medieval Wall Paintings Trail’, a leaflet and map designed to encourage visitors to look at other local churches that also contain surviving medieval wall paintings.
“The idea of the website”, stated Project Manager Matthew Champion, “is to encourage people to come along and have a look at these amazing medieval images. They were originally made for the local people to view, and we want to ensure that they remain that way. The wall paintings trail is a great opportunity for people to see some of the best surviving pieces of medieval art in north Suffolk.
“However, these pieces of art are not in a museum or gallery – they are all in your local churches. By encouraging people to come and see these paintings, we are helping to ensure that they will be preserved for future generations.”
Details of the Lakenheath Wall Paintings Project can be found on the new website and the Medieval Wall Painting Trail can be downloaded for free at : www.lakenheathwallpaintings.co.uk/page22.html