Last month, another British Archaeological Assocation study day whisked me off to Cardiff, to have a look at two churches in Wales: Llancarfan and Llantwich. I didn’t want to pass this up, as I had previously blogged about these wall paintings before, when the BBC did a little piece on them last year. First being discovered in 2008, the church has recently been closed to the public and the paintings rescaffolded for consolidation. Conservator Jane Rutherfoord is currently going through the laborious process of removing the salts that have built up on the surface, at risk of pulling these amazing late-fifteenth-century paintings of St George and the Dragon and the Seven Deadly Sins off the walls.
The one thing we were brought to realise this day is how special these paintings are, mainly for being uncovered so recently and treated so well. Because the biggest damage to English wall paintings was not the immediate state-sponsored iconoclasm of the sixteenth century, the Puritan vandalism of the seventeenth century, the neglect of the eighteenth century or “restoration mania” and the “scrape brigade” of the nineteenth century. No, actually, the post-war decades, with its misplaced confidence in new materials such as polymers, did more irreparable damage to existing wall paintings than any other period. The fact that in the 1960s an allegedly conservation-minded architect could put a concrete vestry of nuclear bunker-like construction bang on top of these paintings, hacking off the plaster of their lower parts and not even notice any medieval pigment is quite frightening indeed.
Jane’s task of conserving what is essentially a flimsy paint surface atop a rabbit-warren of plaster seems to require quite extraordinary tenacity and improvisatory skill. But more is being revealed: new iconography of the Seven Deadly Sins and also a scene with the hand of God, perhaps the life of a saint, await uncovering. What you notice when up on the scaffold (yes, generally the best bit of being an art historian is going up to high places where normal people aren’t allowed) is the peculiar quality of actual English medieval wall painting of this period. We are so used to staring at shadows of the past through discoloured varnish and restoration, and so actually see the vivacity of a medieval artist’s brush is quite a revelation. Yes, it’s not like the quattrocento frescos of Italy, but there’s still an admirable immediacy and skill to all his work, much as we admire a cartoonist’s capability to work fast and create vivid and engaging images. It’s many miles displaced from a nervous Victorian restorer trying to recreate a faded line.
We also went over to nearby Llantwit, a unique church as it’s about four in one: a chancel and nave, then an unaisled “western church”, then a further western chapel, recently re-roofed and restored, which now houses an extraordinary collection of Saxon crosses. David Robinson from English Heritage tried to get us to date all the various parts without relying on the Buildings of Wales, with us colouring in our phased plans to little agreement. The best thing was the towering fourteenth-century stone reredos, which Richard “mouldings” Morris has dated to c.1325-50 with comparison to Wells, about all we could agree on.
Could have done without looking at a medieval dovecot up on the hill though. Didn’t get home for tea til about 10pm. The things we do for art.
Flickr set. Jane issued a no-photos policy of unconserved work one can respect: untreated parts could be misinterpreted when spread around the internet, so these pictures are generally only of the architecture of Llancarfan. The paintings will be fully visible to visitors next year.