THE GUILD Chapel has been named as the winner of a prestigious national award for the conservation of its internationally-significant medieval wall paintings.

The project has won the Society for the Protection of Ancient Building’s (SPAB) Sir John Betjeman Award.

It was one of just 7 faith buildings from across the UK to make the awards shortlist. Having visited all 7, the judges unanimously declared the Guild Chapel and its ‘Death Reawakened’ project as this year’s winner, presenting the award at a ceremony in Bristol on Saturday (June 2nd).

SPAB Judge Rachel Morley said: “We were impressed not only by the extent and depth of recording and analysis underpinning the careful conservation of these amazing paintings, but also by the great skill with which it had been undertaken. The work was delicate and sensitive and executed to a faultless standard. As judges, we particularly noted the powerful results obtained just through the removal of damaging overpaint and coatings where possible, alongside gentle cleaning and stabilisation, without other interventions being made to increase legibility. The SPAB supports repair over restoration and champions a ‘light-touch’ minimalist approach to conservation and this was very much in evidence.”

The Guild Chapel, which forms part of the estate of Stratford Town Trust, dates back to the 13th Century. Its medieval wall paintings were applied in the late 15th Century – but were defaced and limewashed over following the Reformation less than 100 years later. It was John Shakespeare, father of the playwright, who acted on that royal order in his role as Chamberlain of the Corporation of Stratford at the time.

The hidden images of death and the afterlife were rediscovered centuries later – and it’s the 2016 conservation of two of the best-preserved wall paintings which has seen the Guild Chapel win the prestigious SPAB award. These are the Doom – a large ornate scene of the Last Judgement which can be seen over the Chancel arch – and the Erthe upon Erthe poem on the lower west wall, which was previously covered by wooden panelling.

Supported by a £100,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, conservators from the Perry Lithgow Partnership spent months painstakingly removing later layers of limewash and discoloured wax from the paintings to reveal and then consolidate the flaking medieval paint underneath. That means they can be seen today, clearer and brighter than they have for many centuries.

The conservators also removed small sections of the wooden panelling running down both sides of the Chapel – to find fragments of both the Dance of Death painting and the Lyf of Adam painting, which has never been properly documented.

“To be nominated for such a prestigious award was really exciting, Pippa Brook, Volunteer Coordinator for the Guild Chapel, said.

“To win is just beyond words. We hope this recognition will elevate our Guild Chapel even further, garnering more support, opening up more avenues for funding.  There are so many more paintings, so many more secrets still hidden here that we want to reveal, conserve and share.”

Death Reawakened was overseen by the Stratford-based conservation architects Hawkes Edwards.

Chapel architect Trevor Edwards, of Hawkes Edwards, said: “We are delighted to see the wall paintings being brought to a wider audience by the conservation work and enthusiasm of the Town Trust’s volunteers. The Guild Chapel is a fantastic building and we are looking forward to working with the Trust to uncover and conserve more of these important works over the coming years.”

Conservator Mark Perry from the Perry Lithgow Partnership said: “The wall paintings in the Guild Chapel form one of the most important and complete late-medieval schemes in the country.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of this project and for our work and the efforts of everyone involved to be recognised by this award.”

Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York whose research on the Guild Chapel underpinned the original conservation project, added: “It’s been a great privilege to see the Doom painting brought to life, not just by the wonderful work of the Perry Lithgow Partnership, but also by the enthusiasm and new research of the Guild Chapel volunteers. We look forward to discovering more together in this remarkable building.”

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Established in 1990 and named in honour of writer, conservation campaigner and SPAB Committee member (1952-1977) Sir John Betjeman, the award celebrates excellence in the repair of places of worship of all denominations in England and Wales.

The 2018 shortlist was as follows:

  • All Saints, New Windsor, Berks: Conservation of newly rediscovered reredos designed by Thomas Hardy
  • Leigh Old Chancel, Leigh, Cricklade, Wilts: Repair of timber communion rail damaged by vandals
  • St John the Baptist, Myndtown, Shrops: High level repairs to the roof, timber bellcote and bells
  • St Kenelm, Sapperton, Gloucs: Repair of plain glazing
  • St Leonard, Shoreditch, London: Stabilisation and repair to stonework in the portico
  • St Mary, Iffley, Oxford: Lime-based conservation of the west front and south door stonework
  • The Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross, Stratford on Avon, Warwicks: Wall painting conservation

Following visits to all seven buildings, the judges declared the Guild Chapel this year’s winner and commended the work at Leigh Old Chancel.