Paint Investigations

Restorations (1813 – 1975)

Repairs to the fabric of a building require a sensitive approach in terms of the prevention of deterioration, consolidation of the fabric, rehabilitation, reproduction and reconstruction when recreating old or lost schemes of interior decoration. The various painted surfaces in a room can reveal much about the way a room was decorated and treated. By analysing the various layers using microscopic analysis to determine the progression the findings from these can add to revealing the architectural changes. So for example the use of French ultramarine (extracted from lapis lazuli) would suggest paint no older than 1840s. Finlay, in his article Recreating Historic Schemes of Interior Decoration, notes that ‘the value of paint analysis lies in the way in which it is presented and communicated, and how the evidence is recorded’ while at the same time ‘decorative paint evidence is often the most robust physical guide to the superficial appearance of previous schemes of decoration’.   

The restoration of St. Paul’s offers the most recent opportunity to study the interior painting scheme. An investigation identifying the documentation for evidence of significant alterations and phases of redecoration. There is a limited amount of records relating to those in the eighteenth century. The Vestry Order Book (1730-96) states that on 5 July 1774 ‘repairing cleaning and beautifying the inside of the church and portico’ was ordered. Dr Ian Bristow’s investigations on the paint samples from the altarpiece reveal that there were in fact two or three interventions between 1730 and the early nineteenth century. Firstly, Turner’s work was retouched, and then a layer a varnishing was applied, with later additions added to the decorative paint. While in 1813 under the rectorship of Charles Burney the Younger, the Vestry minutes for 6 May 1813 record that it was ‘expedient the church and organ should be put into immediate repair, and for that purpose the church should be shut for some time’. The original plain glazing in the east window was replaced by glass painted by William Collins including a figure of St Paul’s. Within the Scharf watercolour (Fig. 1) Turner’s ‘glory’ has also been replaced by another composition including fictive drapery and Bristow states is very likely to be attributed to the painter Benjamin West (1738-1820). It was also at this point that most of the architecture was painted in ‘imitation of white marble, with grey veins, again with trompe l’oeil enrichments and fictive fluting on the columns and pilasters’ as seen in the Scharf watercolour.


Fig. 1

Later redecorating of the interior took place in 1856 under John Whichcord the Younger (1823-85), in 1883 under Thomas Dinwiddy (1845-1928) and a third in 1895. The first was recorded by in the Kentish and Surrey Mercury and Home Counties Advertiser on 26th April 1856, who indicated the church had been closed on 4th February, ‘warming apparatus’ introduced, and the building thoroughly repaired in the course of eight weeks, noting ‘the architectural beauties of the interior have been heightened by the judicious employment of colour’. The 1895 faculty permitted extensive alterations of the furnishings and there was disfavour to ‘the old three decker pulpit cut down in 1873…while the carved oak sounding board was entirely removed…and fine old dutch oak pews are now in course of demolition’. Paint samples reveal that the ceiling was painted in a white distemper, with red-brown in the ground of the panels, while the walls were painted in a blued white distemper and columns a stone colour. Bristow states that these changes and other alterations to the painting ‘were most damaging’ and a photograph published in 1912 ‘shows the dreary result with Archer’s liturgical spaces destroyed’. (Fig. 2)

St Pauls interior 1902

Fig. 2

When in 1933 under the direction of architects F. C. Eden & R Marchant an event recorded by the Rector states that ‘the whole interior has been painted a broken white, relived by gilding up the tops of the pillars and blue colouring as a background to the plaster work on the roof’. Bristow in his report confirms that the paint samples are off-white and gold treatment and window ferramenta painted black, replacing the Victorian browns. In 1975 under Peter Forster this scheme was repeated, along with restoring Turner’s ‘glory’ with added swags to either side.

2002 Restoration

 The above-mentioned the various phases of restorations, however it was not until more recently that the interior decoration has been studied in any detail or recorded, which has now resulted in essential data for future conservation programmes or architectural history.

Discussions on the internal restoration began in 1996 and in October 2002, the congregation raised £262,000 partnership funding in 20 weeks to secure the remaining Heritage Lottery Fund grant and allow for work to proceed. Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded to St Paul’s at a total cost of £2,777.000, which at the time was the largest grant to be awarded to a parish church. The first phase consisted of roof and major stonework repairs started in 2000, while Phase 2 included the complete restoration of the church interior.

The project was complicated by a serious fire, which occurred between the two phases in May 2000. Fortunately the structural damage was confined to the East end, where much of the stained glass was lost and joinery and decorative finishes were badly charred. The whole of the interior, including the fine organ case were badly blackened by smoke. The fire gave an opportunity for the historic decorative scheme of the east end to be investigated in detail and enabled an authentic recreation of the elaborate 1730’s decorative scheme to be undertaken.

Few compromises were made on the work of the interior of the church in the 2002 restoration and the detailed research carried out by Richard Ireland and Dr Ian Bristow revealed the rich and elaborate decorative scheme to the east end, dating from 1725.

Once the original scheme had been revealed it was proposed to recreate this with a high degree of accuracy based on the large amount of evidence available as a result of Richard Ireland’s careful uncovering of successive paint layers within the apse. Ireland carried out cross-sections in April, May, June 2002 to check that the correct layers were being exposed. Since Turner’s scheme is generally very distinctive, (Fig 3) only a small number were needed. A key feature of the recreation was the gilded panels of trompe l’oeil foliage to the walls on either side of the apse, together with the reinstatement of fluted pilasters between the panels. In accordance with Dr Bristow’s research, the remainder of the interior was to remain relatively plain, with a warm stone colour for the walls and columns, and white ceiling and entablature. The decision was also taken to replace the stained glass to the east window, which had been badly damaged in the fire of 2000 and replace with clear leaded lights in Vauxhall glass in a 1725 decorative pattern.

Turners Glory_paint analysis

Fig. 3

Current overview

 While the building was fully restored in 2004, the issue of continuing this programme of repair and restoration is an on-going dilemma today, with limited financial resources, the church faces new challenges and innovative changes will be required in order to set the church on a self-sustaining footing, to generate income that will allow for on-going building maintenance.

A report carried out by Hirst Conservation, in November 2015, includes a full account of the current paint surface. I have summarised the main points as follows:

  • Significant level of delamination in the extant paint layers over the decorative plaster work, although not visible to naked eye
  • Close examination of previous repairs reveal areas of prior paint loss now over-painted and reference to the instability of existing build-up of paint (an 1884 scheme of oil above the previous distemper) itself exacerbated by the steam resulting from May 2000 fire ‘the use of Classidur was specified by Thomas Ford & Partners, since the cost of wholesale stripping could not be contemplated the risk of flaking would have to be accepted’.
  • The extent of current plaint flaking, as described must therefore be considered in this context and will continue over time and will be exacerbated by any fluctuations in environmental conditions (temperature, humidity and noise vibrations).
  • Position and extent of any losses should be recorded when flakes are seen, to form an ongoing system to monitor these losses.





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