SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Conservation in Action!
Lindy Gilliland, the Cathedral’s Project Manager, writes…
Taking down the military colours to protect them from the ongoing capital works is a delicate business. We have 29 such standards which commemorate those fallen in battle (see the Dean’s blog of 2 January). I sought the expertise of Louise Bainbridge, a freelance object conservator who also works part time for the Corporation of Trinity House, Newcastle. The colours are of silk which is a fibre that breaks down gradually over time; we display them in low light levels when they come to the Cathedral at the end of their life but tradition is that they come here ‘to die’. Many are already badly tattered, some have previously been netted to capture stray silk threads and prevent further deterioration. This conservation practice seems at odds with the regiments’ wishes so we decided to take a middle ground approach when demounting the colours from their brackets high up on the walls in the porches and in the north aisle where they hang over memorial plaques.
The first difficulty was working out how to reach the colours! We waited until the pews had been removed, and then Historic Property Restoration erected a tall mobile scaffolding tower. Our foreman, Anthony Short, gingerly slid each colour’s pike out of its bracket before passing it to the conservator, taking great care not to trail the large square of silk along the floor (which would have been disrespectful). Some measuring over 2m in length, each pike and colour was laid on a table for Louise to photograph, measure and document. She uses a very small vacuum with a nozzle wrapped in fine netting so that only dust is removed rather than any loose silk fibres. The rich colours of each military standard are really highlighted under natural light. It’s painstaking work before each colour is rolled in acid free tissue around its pike, which is also waxed and checked for signs of damage around its gilded finial. After five days – phew! The job is finished, and each colour rests in a packing crate ready to be unfurled again next year.
We’ve thought long and hard about how to protect or relocate a number of other significant objects in Newcastle Cathedral. Our brass ‘eagle’ lectern, which dates from the early 1500s and is the only pre-Reformation example in the north of England, ‘flew’ on skates to reach its new position in the quire. The enormous and important cartoon of St. George and the Dragon, by Dutch artist, Louis Raemaekers (1869 – 1956) was best left in situ hanging on the nave wall so a protective box has been built around it, leaving a small window for us to check on its ongoing condition during the coming months.
Another dilemma was what to do with the fifteenth century delicately-carved wooden font canopy, which hangs over the medieval marble font. Would there be enough clearance for a gantry to be positioned to lift the marble font out of position in due course? After some deliberation, we decided to leave the canopy suspended under a dust cover as moving it to a new position with a change of both temperature and humidity could do more damage, causing the wood to twist and distort. After all, it’s been very happy hanging in the draft of the west doors for over six hundred years so let’s leave well alone!