Historic Churches 2018

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 25 TH ANNUAL EDITION 29 COPPER PANEL PAINTINGS The conservation of a chancel scheme Michael Bowes I N THE late 19th century, artists and craftspeople experimented with many different types of decoration to bring colour and opulence into the ecclesiastical interior. One of the most striking is a form of panel painting seen around the chancel of St Mary the Virgin, the parish church of Bury in Greater Manchester. The church was designed by architect J S Crowther and was consecrated in 1876, and the panel paintings were installed 12 years later, but the artist is unknown. The scheme consists of four scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin set within blind arcading on either side of the altar. These are the Annunciation, the Nativity, Temple Scene and the Adoration of the Magi. The compositions include brightly coloured figures and stylised architectural elements picked out in gold leaf to dramatic effect. Over a century later the surfaces had become worn and disfigured, so a programme of conservation was undertaken to consolidate the fabric and to consider options for their repair and restoration. FORM AND CONSTRUCTION On inspection it was discovered that each panel is made up of between eight and 13 separate metal plates attached to the masonry of the chancel wall and small traces of a green corrosion product at the edges indicated that the metal is copper. The attachments are in two forms: brass bolts with decorative heads at the edges of the plates and flat head screws, filled and painted to match the detail within the plates. This choice of material may seem unusual, but copper sheet has been widely used as a support for panel painting for two main reasons. Firstly, its durability ensures that the paint remains generally free from the characteristic cracking seen in paintings executed on more traditional supports such as canvas or wood. Secondly its smooth, rigid surface allows the paint to be manipulated easily, enabling extremely fine detail to be achieved. Furthermore, the surface is non-absorbent so the paint does not sink in and become matt. This means that oil paintings on copper often retain a high degree of saturation and hue, lending a vibrant, jewel like appearance to the surface (Horovitz 2017 – see further information). The preparation of copper for painting is well described in several historical records (Horovitz 2017). In some cases paint would have been applied direct to the copper panel, allowing the artist to work from a darker red or orange colour to create certain visual effects such as a warm hue to the skin tones. However, most include a thin layer of lead white and drying oil as a ground layer. It is this technique that seems to have been used across the entire surface of the chancel panels, as brushstrokes could be observed to pass consistently under the areas of gold and thin upper paint layer. The painted areas were executed in oil paints using a wide variety of pigment types including a range of earth colours (umber, ochre, sienna), rich reds including alizarin crimson and vermilion, greens including viridian, oxide of chromium and possibly malachite, lead white, and several yellows. The gold areas were oil-gilded (gold leaf on an oil-based size) resulting in a smooth continuous surface of pure gold, both as a backdrop to the figures and to enrich the architectural elements of the scheme. The painting of ‘Jesus in the Temple’ from the south east niche after conservation, showing the almost three- dimensional quality of the gilded and painted surfaces. (All photos: Michael Bowes)