Meet the conservators

Up on the scaffolding, behind the barrier of chairs, two women have spent the last six weeks vacuuming, cleaning, consolidating, filling and ‘inpainting’: the process of conserving the 19th century stencilling in the chancel at St Peter’s, Preston Park. But what do conservators actually do?

Fiona Reid and Martha Swabey are experienced conservators, working with Hare & Humphreys, to undertake the HLF-funded work at St Peters. They both specialise in paint conservation and analysis, having taken an MA in Conservation of Fine Art at Northumbria University. Talking with them about their work and how they tackle a site, it quickly becomes clear that their work is systematic, demanding a step-by-step approach, with a very close attention to detail and the expertise to judge when an appropriate finish has been achieved: ‘It’s a real judgement knowing the level to take it to. However, the training we’ve had is quite regimented and we know to focus on the process, and the integrity of the original design’.

The work at St Peter’s started with ‘dry’ cleaning the whole chancel, from the top, using back-pack vacuums and brushes. This was followed by ‘wet’ cleaning all the paintwork with the chemicals that have previously been tested to be most effective on this specific paint scheme. Consolidating damaged plaster work comes next, with any paint lost in this process being re-adhered with a heated spatula; filling lost plasterwork and finally in-painting, replacing the lost paint on the stencils. ‘One of the things that you learn quickly about conservation is that there’s a lot of improvisation and compromise. You might have an idea of how to do something, but when you get there all the paint falls off and you have to completely re-assess what you’re going to do. This is something that you learn once you’ve left university and are on the job!’

Some of the challenges faced at St Peter’s have been addressing previous conservation work. There have been patches of replacement plaster which are now crumbling away, rather zealous over-cleaning in places and various holes that have been filled with inappropriate materials over the years. The slightly slapdash work of previous craftspeople have also thrown up the challenge of cleaning wood varnish/stain drips off paintwork - probably invisible when they were first dropped, but now ingrained with years of dirt and seemingly impervious to the chemicals that are working so effectively on the rest of the plaster.

When completed, the Chancel won’t look brand new, it won’t look as if it was painted yesterday. It will continue to tell the story of a stencilling scheme that is now coming up to 150 years old, but will be cleaner, brighter, complete and will remain true to the initial vision of the craftsmen who designed and implemented it.

Both Fiona and Martha talk about the satisfaction of working on a small project without a huge team of other crafts and trades people and where they are not effectively on a building site. (As an aside, both note that working on a building site can still be a struggle as a woman, even in 2018). Their work at St Peter’s is making a visible difference each day, enabling them and visitors to see what they are achieving, which gives a real satisfaction. More generally, they comment, as conservators they get to ‘touch really cool things’ and to see behind the scenes at amazing places!

The work on the chancel should be finished by the end of August and the Friends of St Peter’s look forward to inviting people to see the newly cleaned chancel in the autumn.

Fiona and Martha will be available to answer questions about their work on two open afternoons at St Peter’s: 2-4pm, 24th July and 1st August.

Some larger images of the working process...

Before Treatment. Extensive damage to the structural integrity of the scheme

After cleaning, consolidation, filling and inpainting treatment.

Before Treatment

After cleaning, consolidation, filling and inpainting treatment.

During Treatment. The application of Ammonium carbonate (5%) applied with cotton wool swab and cleared with deionised water.

During Cleaning Treatment

After Treatment

Before Treatment. Losses and vulnerable raised paint around the window borders.

During Treatment. Losses filled with conservation standard putty prior to inpainting.

After Treatment. Flaking paint has been re-plasticised and consolidated. Losses have been filled, isolated and integrated using gouache to ensure reversibility.

During Treatment. inpainting losses to reintegrate the stencil.

During Treatment. Following consolidation[1], a heated spatula is used to re-plasticise and secure the paint layer to ensure the previously lifted paint is in a level planar with the scheme reducing the risk of further losses and improving the aesthetic legibility of the scheme.

[1] The application of adhesive, Plextol B500 using a syringe or paint brush through facing tissue to secure the paint and plaster layers and prevent any further losses to the scheme

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