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Heritage warning as English weather threatens church art

England’s “irreplaceable” historic wall paintings are at risk from the damp climate and previous flawed restoration attempts, English Heritage has warned.

Preserving the artworks, some of which are older than those in the Sistine Chapel, is also difficult because of the complexity of preserving them in the ancient, crumbling buildings they decorate.

English Heritage has launched an appeal to support the conservation of the artistic treasures in its care to stop them disappearing.

The heritage charity cares for 77 wall paintings across the country, from the Victorian gothic decoration at St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal in North Yorkshire to the internationally-important art at St Mary’s Church, Kempley in Gloucestershire.

But they are under threat of deterioration and decay for a number of reasons, not least the weather.

Unlike well-preserved paintings in France and Italy, which benefit from a warmer climate, the damp, wet conditions often found in England can cause damage to the fragile artworks.

And unlike paintings on canvas which can be moved to a suitable place to preserve them best, such as a climate-controlled gallery, wall paintings by their nature are fixed to their historic surroundings. This means that the conservation challenges faced by centuries-old medieval or even Roman buildings also extend to their paintings.

On top of this, early 20th century efforts to restore images have done more harm than good, with practices such as the use of soluble nylon to prevent damage causing increased flaking of paint, English Heritage said.

The organisation is undertaking an audit of all its wall paintings to assess the extent of the deterioration and what needs to be done to preserve them.
Among items at risk are medieval paintings at Longthorpe Tower in Peterborough, First World War graffiti at Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire, and securing the Archer Pavilion roof at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire.

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

“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.”

And she urged: “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.”

People can support the appeal at:

Picture: English Heritage collections conservator (North) Caroline Rawson, conducts a condition audit of wall paintings at St Mary’s Church in North Yorkshire. (Danny Lawson/PA).