HALF a millennia after they were limewashed during the Reformation, work is now beginning on the painstaking conservation of Stratford’s rare and precious medieval wall paintings, thanks to National Lottery players.
Said to be amongst the finest surviving in all of Europe, the murals adorn the walls inside The Guild Chapel, painting a picture of life and belief 500 years ago, in the time and town that Shakespeare was born into.
The Chapel, with a history dating back to 1269, is now at the centre of Death Reawakened – a major project backed by a £100,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aiming to both conserve and showcase the wall paintings.
These outstanding example of medieval church decoration were covered with layers of limewash in 1563 on orders given to John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, during the Reformation.
They were rediscovered in the 19th and then 20th centuries – and are described as being of major national significance.
Death Reawakened reached its first major milestone this week when expert conservators arrived at the Chapel to climb the scaffolding now erected inside, and begin their work.
The Guild Chapel will remain open each day throughout the conservation process – set for completion in late November – giving visitors the chance to see the conservators in action.
The two best-preserved wall paintings are the subject of the initial work now underway. These are the large ornate scene of ‘the Doom’ which can be seen above the Chancel arch, and the ‘Allegory on Death’ – also known as the ‘Death Poem’ which is found on the west wall.
As well as the remains of layers of limewash used to cover the paintings up, they are partially obscured by later layers of paint and a preservative layer of wax (a common conservation technique in the early 20th century). This and the paint that has flaked off over time have combined to render much of the painting dull and ‘muddy’. Conservators from the Perry Lithgow Partnership will now undertake the painstaking process of removing these overlayers to reveal and then consolidate the flaking medieval paint underneath. Some small areas of the paintings will also be minimally touched in where the current missing areas of paint render the original form and details illegible. It is hoped and anticipated that this will make the paintings appear brighter, clearer and more legible to the naked eye, allowing all the visitors to the Chapel to enjoy these works of art as they were originally intended.
With Christ central to the scene, the Doom is a traditional image from the time it was painted – believed to be late in the 15th Century. It shows souls being judged before entering heaven or hell – with incredible detail preserved.
The Death Poem has for many years been hidden behind wooden panelling on the lower south side of the west wall. The mural illustrates the transitory nature of earthly glories and the suffering for sins following death, a subject which was popular at the time. Once conserved, the Death Poem, again preserved in very fine detail, will be opened up and on permanent display to visitors.
Stratford Town Trust, custodian of the Guild Chapel, is seeking further funding to unveil and conserve more paintings going forward. The legend of St George and the Dragon, the Martyrdom of St Thomas Beckett and an elaborate sequence depicting the Dance of Death are all hidden within the Chapel’s walls.
Project Manager Cate Statham, of Hawkes Edwards & Cave Conservation Architects, said: “We have been thrilled to be involved with the Chapel for such a long time and especially now to see these fabulous paintings getting the attention they deserve. Our Principal Architect Trevor Edwards has been working in partnership with Tobit Curteis & Associates to monitor and document the paintings for the past 15 years and it is now really exciting to be beginning the work we have been hoping to carry out for so long.”
Vanessa Harbar, Head of HLF West Midlands, said: “This project will conserve and restore these wonderful murals, and give local people the chance to get a first-hand look at the work as it progresses. The opportunities for school children to engage with this significant part of Stratford’s cultural heritage are particularly encouraging, and we are delighted that we are able, thanks to National Lottery players, to support the project”.
Displays charting the history of the Chapel, exploring its long associations with the Shakespeare family and detailing the significance of its paintings are now in place, with a team of volunteer guides on hand to welcome the hundreds of visitors stepping into the Chapel each week.
The £100,000 HLF grant is also supporting a wider educational programme, to encourage more people step into a ‘hidden’ chapter in Stratford’s history through a series of events and plans to engage local schools.