Conserving the Fathers of the Church: St Augustine and the feeling of 'ancientness'
Chastleton is known for its worn look and dusty patina, it is presented as it was found by the National Trust rather than how it looked in its heyday. Tucked away in an overlooked corridor hung three paintings which seemed to particularly exude the feeling of ‘ancientness’ – a word coined for the romantic bygone sentiment that Chastleton conjures.
At first glance these paintings did not appear to be anything special, seemingly to be painted by an unknown artist working in Britain in the early 1600s based on Flemish engravings. They were of an intriguing subject matter for their age. The set of paintings are called the ‘Fathers of the Church’, overtly religious subjects and symbols could be a dangerous possession in this period of British history. The worn wooden boards of the painting, the flaking paint and the dull varnish meant that they did not stand out as a set of obvious masterpieces.
In late 2016 the team at Chastleton were approached by the Getty Foundation Panel Painting Initiative funded a professional internship in panel painting conservation to develop skills in this very specialist area. Conservator Irina Gefding from the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg was selected to undertake this unique opportunity.
Before the National Trust arrived in 1991 and began the project to gently arrest years of gradual decline, the set of paintings had sat largely undisturbed in this damp and dusty house. These were not the ideal conditions for 400-year-old paintings and so they had gradually deteriorated.
On the 1st February 2017 the conservation team at Chastleton carefully packaged up one of the three paintings in sheets of acid-free tissue paper and layers of bubble wrap ready for its trip to the conservation studio. The portrait of St Augustine was selected as the painting in most need of attention by the conservators and so the team arranged for this painting to undergo treatment first. Made of three individual vertical panels of wood, the panels of the St Augustine painting were gradually splitting apart. The right-hand panel was in particularly poor condition. Larva of the furniture beetle had set up home in the 400 year old wood, leaving behind their honeycomb-like holes and sawdust-like frass. Previous poor quality repairs had failed, leaving factures and gaps in the panels, and at some point in its long history the painting had suffered a large loss of material along the right-hand side of the painting.
Today we control the temperature and humidity of the rooms at Chastleton to ensure all of our objects are housed in the correct atmospheric conditions. We protect the objects from light damage, ensure they are carefully dusted and inspected and keep records about their condition. Although we show the house to visitors in an apparently untouched state, behind the scenes a huge amount of work goes on to preserve the building so that future generations of visitors can enjoy exploring its creaky floor boards, quirky nooks and experience that special feeling of ‘ancientness’ which Chastleton is so well known for.
During September and October 2018 the conserved painting of St Augustine can be viewed with one of its companion pieces, a portrait of Pope Gregory, in the Great Chamber at Chastleton House.
Your visit to Chastleton helps us to carry out this important conservation work, so we can share it with you and future generations.