Conserving Kempe (2): what would Ruskin say?

By Adrian Barlow / March, 31, 2014 / 0 comments

Waterbeach women at tomb In my previous post, I described a Kempe window in serious need of help, but I stopped short of discussing what sort of help would be best. In this follow-up post I want to tackle this question, setting out some principles – making clear, however, that my views are only my own, and acknowledging that the wishes of churchwardens, Diocesan Advisory Committees and even members of the Kempe Trust may not always coincide. As before, the focus of this discussion will be the W window in St. John’s Waterbeach.

In the report I wrote on this window for the conservators, I made the following comments on the condition of the glass:

The window as a whole appears to be in reasonable physical condition: only two quarries have been cracked and re-leaded, as have two oblong strips of glass at the very bottom of the window, and one in the extreme top right.* These repairs could well have been made at the time the window was installed. Nevertheless, the condition of the painted surface of the glass shows many signs of serious deterioration, notably in the legs and feet of Christ, and in the chequer-board flooring. The torso of Christ has lost a good deal of its definition, too, as has (though to a much lesser extent) the definition of the face. This is also true of the faces of the women and of the angel in the lower panel.

 Throughout the window there is evidence that it is the silver staining that has degraded. It is also apparent that the level of deterioration has been affected by three factors:

 (i)  the use of quick-fluxing borax in the firing process;

(ii) the conditions (length of time etc.) under which different pieces of glass were fired; and

(iii) the skill and consistency with which the silver staining was applied in the first place. This is particularly evident from the fact that some quarries appear to be almost in mint condition, others to have faded very badly.

 Besides these technical factors, however, it is also worth stressing that the window (now over 140 years old) would benefit most of all from careful professional cleaning under studio conditions and from conservation of the leadwork. Because of its west facing position, the lead appears not to have suffered unduly from exposure to direct strong sunlight.

I’m sure that the window as installed was the work of several hands. It’s even possible that the lower panel, depicting the women at the tomb, was originally intended for a different commission. The way the wings of the angel on the right and the dress of the woman on the left have been cropped to fit between the strapwork borders of the window suggests that this panel (or at least the cartoon for this panel) was originally designed to fill a larger space. This is what my report said about the conserving of this part of the window:

Where possible, evidence of the original draughtsmanship and painting – even if faded – should not be destroyed by being overpainted. This applies in particular to the face of Christ and to the scene of the Women at the Tomb, which retains a very strong (and all the more poignant because fading) sense of the high quality of the original draughtsmanship and painting.

Waterbeach 1The importance of the Waterbeach window lies particularly in this small panel. There are dozens of Kempe windows that depict –often as one of a series of Resurrection subjects – the appearance of the angel to the women at the Tomb. I know of none, however, (and certainly none so early) depicting the scene with such economy and restraint. The tense and anxious women on the one hand and, on the other, the relaxed and reassuring angel perched on a corner of the plinth where Christ had been laid; the exquisite drawing of all the hands; the simple green latticework background and the flowers dotting the grass mound; these features remind us how the whole composition relies on just four colours – white, gold, green and red. In both the draughtsmanship and in the colour of this miniature scene there is a clarity and freshness I cherish in very early Kempe. How then can conservators preserve these fragile characteristics of a scene that has already started to disappear before one’s eyes?

Here I admit to divided feelings. I want this window to be once again a pleasure to look at; I want visitors to come to Waterbeach and admire this fine example of early Kempe glass; but at the same time Ruskin’s diatribe against restoration rings in my ear:

Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture …. The life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, never can be recalled. (‘The Lamp of Memory: XVIII’ in Seven Lamps of Architecture)

 I’m pleased to be able to report that Auravision, the conservators entrusted with the Waterbeach window, have responded to the Kempe Trust’s report in reassuring terms. Clarifying the areas of badly lost paint, such as the lower inscription and the legs, they suggest,

would be achieved by painting the lost details on separate pieces of clear glass and attached to the back of the original pieces, so the original glass is untouched.  This process is completely reversible and the newly painted pieces could be removed at any point. But only important areas, such as heads (and legs, in this instance!) and inscriptions are treated in this way in order to make the design legible, in line with the artist’s original intent.  Any new paintwork would be painted to match the brush strokes and colouring of the original, and softened so as not to appear too heavy or too pristine for the design in its current aged condition.  It should resemble the original paintwork as it is and not as it was.

 However, if the precise wording of the inscription cannot be agreed upon, then we would leave it untouched.  If we only enhance one piece of glass in this window, it should be that lower inscription.

 I suspect this would not have satisfied Ruskin, and probably not William Morris either, but the important principles spelt out here – that the process is entirely reversible, and that the work should resemble the paintwork as it is, not as it was – are principles I fully endorse. So, I believe, would Kempe himself have done.

I shall report again on progress with this window. And in a future post, I shall discuss the techniques of conservation and restoration adopted by the Kempe Studio itself, under Kempe’s guidance and (after his death) by Kempe and Co., at Fairford, at Lichfield Cathedral, and in Malvern and Tewkesbury Abbeys.

Adrian Barlow

* I had failed to mention that the face of the angel in the scene of the women at the Tomb also appears to be cracked. Damage across such a delicate piece of painted glass could never be repaired with lead, but today’s polymer resin adhesive is increasingly being used to repair such sensitive areas of damage.  An alternative method, sometimes appropriate, is to laminate the damaged piece between exactly matching pieces of clear glass, held in place by new and specially strengthened leadwork.

[illustrations: St. John’s Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire – the Appearance of the Angel to the Women at the Tomb (detail from the W window); photo © the author.