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Medieval wall paintings at risk, English Heritage says

England’s painted past is at risk, English Heritage warned last month, 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 – many from the Middle Ages– risk disappearing from view altogether. English Heritage has launched an appeal to support the conservation of these artworks.

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.

“Wall paintings are the most challenging type of art to care for, but they offer a precious insight into England’s story,” says Rachel Turnbull, English Heritage’s Senior Collections Conservator. “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.”

Theses wall paintings are at risk from a number of factors, 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.

12th-century chancel wall paintings – the most complete set of Romanesque frescos in northern Europe – at St Mary’s Church, Kempley. Photo courtesy English Heritage

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.

The charity has now launched a public appeal for funding for this project. You can get more information at: www.english-heritage.org.uk/wallpaintings

Top Image: St Mary’s Church, Kempley – photo courtesy English Heritage

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