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Conservation of the Royal Arms in the Church of St John the Baptist, 1984

Although there are some examples of Royal Arms in English Churches before the Tudor period, they became a feature of most Churches after Henry VIII broke with Rome and became Head of the Church of England. They reminded the congregation that their religious allegiance was to the monarch rather than the Pope. After the Civil War such Arms were removed from the Churches and sometimes replaced with those of the Commonwealth. Following the Restoration in 1661 those Arms of the republic were removed and often new Royal Arms were painted, although this was not compulsory. The Royal Arms is a prominent feature in Wickhamford Church and it was in a very bad state of preservation by the 1980s. It was decided that some conservation work was required and the Vicar, Rev. Peter Mitchell, called on the services of conservator Anna Hulbert (1944-2000).

A box of documents covering the raising of funds and reports on the work still exists and this article deals with the actual work, completed on 16th December 1984, rather than the financial aspect. However, for information, the total cost of the conservation was £7,069.21, of which the Council for the Care of Churches contributed the lion’s share of £4,180.

A Preliminary Visit

The conservator, Anna Hulbert, of Wantage, visited the Church on 26th January 1983 and met with Rev. Peter Mitchell and Churchwardens, J.E. Parry and D. Gerard Poulter to inspect the Royal Arms to report on how they might be preserved. The following information is taken from her report soon after that visit.

The Royal Arms before conservation.
The Royal Arms before conservation.

She found the Royal Arms in poor condition, but stated that they were amongst the most interesting she had seen. They are painted on boarding attached to the East wall of the nave, high above the chancel arch and form an integral part of the mediaeval ceilure. The Arms fill the space between the collar and the tie-beam of the Queen-strut and collar-and-tie-beam nave roof.

The horizontal boards, which support the paint layer, seemed to be of oak, meeting in an early form of tongue and groove joint. There are four sections and there appeared to some sort of king-post behind to which the boards are nailed. All of the wood appeared quite sound, but with corroded nails. She stated that these would need to be removed and replaced with stainless steel screws or similar, after any loose paint had been consolidated.

The Arms depicted are those used by four Stuart kings and by Queen Anne until 1707. On each side, in the outer triangles beyond the queen-posts, are the Rose of England (lion’s side) and Thistle of Scotland (unicorn’s side). Above the floral emblem is the date 16 – 61, which is obviously in a different kind of paint to the rest. 1661 is a common date for those Stuart arms which celebrate the Restoration of the Monarchy, but she believed that here it was a spurious addition. Just to the North of the lion crest is a yellow I2; the corresponding space to the South of the crest was damaged, but could well have contained an R. I2R stood for Iacobus Secundus Rex. Arms of King James II (1685-89) are extremely rare and Wickhamford, she believed, could turn out to have the largest and most splendid of all.

The area of the painting is, approximately, eight feet high and twenty feet wide at the bottom, ten feet wide at the top. The medium is not the usual kind of oil paint, but seems to be some kind of distemper; it is even possible that the ground was limewash, which does not lie happily with acid oak. It is of competent quality, though not outstanding, and looks like the work of as local painter who, perhaps, regularly decorated the walls of grander farmhouses before the invention of wallpaper.

The background is red ochre, and there is also yellow ochre and some green as well as black and white. The blue was not decipherable at present, but would doubtless become visible when consolidated. The composition is divided at the queen-posts with grey-marbled pilasters beside the battens. The garter motto is no longer visible, but the Royal motto is quite clear across the bottom and there is a very good ermine mantling, with yellow tassels.

The medium must always have been thin and matt, possibly consisting of size because that does not ‘drown’ cheap pigments as oil does. Ever scrap of paint was loose, and most of it was hanging well clear of the wood in brittle, crumbly flakes that were falling down all the time. Fixing was going to be particularly difficult because the many waxes and resins available for fixing oil paint would over-saturate the pigments and spoil the original tonality. The white was probably chalk, not white lead, for a test she did with white spirit made it go transparent. She suggested the type of product that might be used, not just to stick the paint to the wood, but to restore the paint to its original tonality. Each flake of paint would need to be cleaned, a slow and delicate task requiring fairly experience conservators. Any scaffolders employed must be made to understand that they must not brush against the painting.

A brief inspection of the lower part of the painting did not reveal more than one paint layer. She could see no advantage in taking any planks down; an inspection of the end grain might allow their age to be established by dendrochronology. This should not be attempted whilst the paint was still loose.

The paint was so perilous that is needed immediate fixing. Meanwhile, it must not be touched, breathed on, nor vibrated. No one viewing it from a ladder should be tempted to place a finger on it. Any loose tile or the like must be screwed back, not nailed and the Churches cob-web brush must be kept under lock and key !

She concluded by saying that the Church had many fine 17th century furnishings, so the Arms form a particularly important part of it. She felt certain that they could be made to look very splendid and that their rarity and unusual form would make them an important feature.

A composite picture of the scaffolding erected for the conservators to work on.
A composite picture of the scaffolding erected for the conservators to work on.

The Conservators

H.M.J. Harrison, of Herbert Read Ltd of Exeter, was asked to inspect the Royal Arms and comment upon the required restoration work. He wrote to Rev. Mitchell on 6th September 1983 and the following is a summary of his letter.

The Arms were painted on horizontal oak boarding, divided vertically into four sections, with a V joint in the edge of each board allowing them to join. He found no evidence of deathwatch beetle or obvious attack by wet rot; there was a trace of the presence of common furniture beetle but this seemed to be inactive at that time. Only cleaning of the Royal Arms and paint on the battens would reveal if they were original. The nails securing the boards were extremely corroded.

He recommended firstly securing all of the paint then removing one or two boards to permit inspection of the wood behind, before making a decision as to what to do next. It might be necessary to remove some or all of the boards and re-fix them securely. Because of the uncertainty of the scale of the work he found it impossible to give a fixed estimate but recommended urgent attention to paint consolidation.

Conservation Report, Part 1 – 16th November 1984

After work began on the conservation of the Royal Arms, Anna Hulbert reported on the progress of the project. She confirmed the size of the oak boarding and that the painting technique was clearly some kind of distemper on a limewash or, more probably, glue-and-chalk ground. The colours identified were red ochre, yellow ochre, a green (probably copper-based), and small touches of scarlet (perhaps red lead). There was a pair of painted grey or blue-grey curtains wrapped around the pillars on either side, which extended onto the ceiling above. She mentioned that a photograph of the Arms is reproduced in Screens and Galleries in English Churches, by Francis Bond (1908). Even at that date, all of the blue was already missing. The surviving traces of a gritty pigment suggested that it might have been smalt or azurite.

The large date on the side sections, 16 – 61, was clearly of fairly recent date and in an orangey-red ochre that did not belong to the original palette.

Underneath the present painting were very clear traces of an older Royal Arms, with heavier ermine tails in the mantling. There were minute traces of bright blue underneath the central mediaeval boss at the top. Everywhere there were small fragments of this earlier Arms, but these had a puzzling amount of blue in the shield area and were little help in deciding to which sovereign the earlier Arms belonged. However, there was a date at the sides. Underneath the present, supposedly fake, date was an orangey pigment outlined in black. These figures read 16 - ?9, the third digit being a strangely complicated shape.

Peter Mitchell had informed Miss Hulbert that there was an entry in the Parish registers recording a major restoration of the Church in 1661. She thought that a learned forger might have inserted a spurious date at this time.

Returning to the conservation work, extensive paint loss had taken place since 1908 and the rest was badly blistered, thin and brittle. After careful application of methylated spirit and water as a wetting agent, the paint was fixed using “Liquitex” acrylic matt medium as an adhesive. The quantity of resin was carefully controlled so that the surface did not become glossy.

Initial cleaning was carried out with swabs and cobwebs were hooked off with tweezers. Fortunately no varnish had ever been applied to the Arms. At the time of this report a second cleaning was in progress, re-dissolving dirt with acetone and gently massaging delicate areas with sable brushes.

Every effort was being made to restore the painting to its original splendid impact, but on no account would this involve any falsification of the 17th century artist’s work. It was intended to first repair the little areas of the surface loss within the surviving colour, and then to tone out the more distracting shapes of bare wood. Evidence of earlier painting would not be obliterated, and the minimum amount of new colour to bring the old back into balance was envisaged.

Once the painting was clean, woodwork repairs would take place. There was huge amount of filth behind the boarding to be vacuumed out and timbers would be treated with a protective insecticide. Only old nail holes would be reused to secure the boards back in place.

James Barton
James Barton
Anna Hulbert
Anna Hulbert
Bob Chappell of Herbert Read Ltd (right)
Bob Chappell of Herbert Read Ltd (right)
Johanna Saunders
Johanna Saunders

The conservators at work on the painting.

Conservation Report, Part 2 – December 1984

In this final report, Anna Hulbert describes her finished work, which had taken her about two months to complete. She says that the cleaning of the painting was very successfully completed and several new features became apparent. The date of 1661 now seemed to be a repainting rather than a spurious insertion as she had originally supposed. However, this made the cipher I2R extremely puzzling. She could only surmise that a painting of the Arms of King James I or King Charles I was damaged during the Commonwealth and completely repainted in 1661; it could have been restored again for James II. Apart from the repainting of “1661” there was no evidence of any post-17th century restoration until the present time.

The cresting along the bottom of the ceilure, with traces of paint that appeared to be from the 15th century, was cleaned and lightly varnished with dammar.

After the cleaning and final checking over of the consolidation had been completed, carefully matched repairs to surviving areas of colour were carried out using weakly-bound acrylic colours. These repairs were designed to obliterate scuff-marks and small distracting holes and could easily be removed with acetone if require in the future.

When Herbert Read Ltd removed some of the unstable planks a late mediaeval painted decoration on the roof truss behind was of exceptional interest. Along the great tie-beam runs a massive Aaron’s Rod in black and red, on a white ground, which appeared to be ca 1500. The queen-struts and collar-truss had a simple curly foliage trail in black on white.

Under the boards of the Royal Arms is this painting of Aaron’s Rod.
Under the boards of the Royal Arms is this painting of Aaron’s Rod.

Fortunately, the boards had not been nailed onto the painted struts. She says that this remarkable discovery lends weight to the statement in the book by Francis Bond that “Wickhamford, Worcester, has the royal arms painted on an older tympanum. Archbishop Sandys is said to have brought the woodwork of this church from one of the city in London”.

Unfortunately, there was no way to leave the mediaeval painting uncovered; the ceilure was therefore replaced with stainless-steel screws, the planks now fitting much more smoothly than before.

The heads of the screws were toned out using oil paint to match the adjoining wood. An iron lamp-bracket that had been screwed into the bottom of the Arms was reinstated and painted Berlin black.

The Lion before conservationThe Lion after conservation
The Lion, before and after conservation.

Such a considerable amount of reconstruction was involved, a technique of vertical hatching was chosen where retouching involved areas of bare wood. The worst losses to the painting had taken place near the top, presumably because of a build-up of rising hot air over the years, and to the foliage of the rose and thistle. Retouching was allowed to peter out in these areas, in order to avoid imaginative reconstruction upon insufficient evidence. The centre of the picture, however, was rendered a little more legible, although no attempt was made to recover the missing blue of the Garter and French quarters of the Shield. Difficulties were encountered in sorting out the layers of mantling, as the cloth-of-gold is painted in an identical technique in both early and later 17th century Arms.

The Unicorn before conservationThe Unicorn after conservation
The Unicorn, before and after conservation.

A Rose before conservationA Rose after conservation
A Rose, before and after conservation.

Anna Hulbert concluded by hoping that as wide a panorama as possible, of the object’s history, would now be available to the interested visitor with binoculars.

The Royal Arms after conservation.
The Royal Arms after conservation.


Acknowledgement – Thanks are gratefully given to Eddie Sinclair, one of the conservators, for identifying her colleagues in the photographs above. She does not appear in the pictures in the main article, but can be seen below helping to conserve the wall painting of the Virgin Mary and Child, together with lead conservator, Anna Hulbert.

Eddie Sinclair and Anna Hulbert working on the painting of the Virgin and Child
Eddie Sinclair and Anna Hulbert working on the painting of the Virgin and Child

This work was undertaken at the same time, during periods when the conservators were waiting for materials to dry on the Royal Arms. The Virgin and Child background was once strewn with delicate, eight-pointed stars and it is believed that the picture that survives is an underpainting for an oil painting, now lost.

Tom Locke – November 2013