Conservators Rise to the Challenge of Restoring St Marie’s Historic Tiling
The team, from KL Conservation, led by Katie Langridge, has been working late into the night on occasion to restore the Victorian tiling in the Mortuary and Norfolk Chapels and the Cathedral’s South Transept.
Their work is being carried out with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
There are no records of who made or paid for the tiles, but the style, techniques and the materials used indicate they come from the late 1880s, were made by several artists and were probably supplied by a local company specialising in church decoration.
“There are a lot of unknowns but, hopefully, research we are currently doing may bring us some more information,” says Laura Claveria, St Marie’s Heritage Engagement and Learning Officer, speaking at an event where parishioners and visitors got a chance to see the conservation work up close.
“We know they are hand painted and we can tell from the quality that whoever painted them was very, very skilled. The style is influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, harking back to the Medieval and Gothic, which is important to Catholics because that was a time when Catholicism was the universal faith.”
When conservators started to examine the tiles they found they had been covered with a deep layer of varnish during an earlier restoration of the Cathedral.
Once the varnish had been removed the tiles appeared a lot brighter, but it became clear that some had been damaged and some colours had faded significantly.
“The enamelling was added colour by colour,” explained lead conservator, Katie Langridge, who gained an MA in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln and has worked, among other institutions, for English Heritage, the National Trust, the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau and at Queen Victoria’s residence, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.
“The artists would paint on a colour and fire it, each additional colour had to be fired at a lower temperature because, if you fired at the same temperature the enamel would bleed and you wouldn’t have the clear lines. The light green background was put on first and is pretty stable, but the later colours were fired at a lower temperature.”
The key principle of modern day conservation is ‘retreatability’ so the conservators working on St Marie’s tiles have had to ensure they do not change the physical composition of the tiles and that anything they do can be removed and re-done at a later date.
They have carefully filled areas where tiles were knocked off during past work and are using high quality acrylics that don’t fade in light and will not stain the tiles to restore lettering and imagery.
“The most difficult part, in terms of time and getting it right, is retouching. It’s a real skill. If you do it badly, it is obvious,” says Katie.
That said, modern principles of conservation mean that it should be possible to detect restoration work up close, so they work to a “six inch/six foot” rule which means their work should be undetectable from six feet, but visible at six inches.
And, if they can’t be sure of details in the original image, they leave it as it is. “If we are not 100 per cent sure, we don’t put it in. You don’t make anything up,” says Katie.
In addition to restoring the imagery and the names of deceased priests from St Marie’s on the tiling in the Mortuary Chapel, conservators have been asked to add the names of a further 17 former priests.
They also received permission to remove layers of paint on the tiles around the shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
They have repaired tiles and refreshed the lettering on the memorial to the communal life of all parishioners who contributed to the church in the South Transept and the tiles around the shrine to St Patrick, which features the Saint’s initials and the shamrock.
Novel Solution to Prevent Rising Damp Causing Further Damage to Norfolk Chapel Tiles
Conservators restoring Victorian tiling at St Marie’s faced arguably their toughest challenges in the Norfolk Chapel – also known as the St Joseph Chapel.
Rising damp had caused cracking and other damage to a memorial commemorating children who had died in the days when child mortality rates in Sheffield were high, and the prospects were it would do the same once repairs had been completed.
“The North side of the Chapel has been the most challenging,” said lead conservator Katie Langridge. “The area has suffered badly from soluble salts. Water drawn up from the ground evaporates, the salts crystallise and that pushes the tiles up, which is why they were so cracked and uneven. We had to take them all up and get rid of the salts. If we had put them straight back again, the same thing would have happened, so we have laid them on board made from calcium silicate which is water and fire resistant.
“We have put spacers between the shelf and the board, leaving a gap for airflow so that when the salts come up they can crystallise without affecting the tiles. The board can also be slid out so that you can clean the salts away, if necessary.”
The wall above the memorial to the children commemorates Sisters of Notre Dame, who were very active in Sheffield and one of the first groups to found schools for girls in Sheffield, back in the days when it was difficult to get an education in Sheffield, especially if you were a girl.
On the other side of the Chapel are tiles depicting six virgin Saints also influenced by the style of the Pre-Raphaelites, with symbolic fruits and flowers.
Once again the tiles have been cleaned, damaged has been filled and the images have been retouched. Conservators found the backgrounds had previously been gilded underneath the glaze.
“We cannot justify trying to replicate that because we are not sure we could get the same effect and it doesn’t take away from the imagery, so we are only retouching the gilding on the edges and scroll work,” said Katie Langridge.
Photographs: Bob Rae