Environmental conditions inside Westminster Abbey are now causing “serious concern”, according to one of its own conservators, Marie Louise Sauerberg. The Coronation Chair, commissioned in 1296 and used for virtually every crowning since 1308, has suffered from serious flaking of its gilded surface. Humidity levels fluctuate considerably in the abbey, mainly because of central heating. Polychromed wood is particularly vulnerable to these changes, causing the paint to flake.
Although unpublicised at the time, three years ago the chair was treated in situ, with adhesive being used to stabilise the lifting gilding.
Serious damage has also been sustained by the ancient sedilia, or priests’ stalls, which date from around 1307. The sedilia, on the south side of the high altar, are decorated with paintings and are among the abbey’s greatest treasures. They also feature some of the earliest English paintings on panel. The sedilia have long been regarded as a rare survival, and William Blake recorded them in a watercolour in 1775.
On the front of the oak sedilia there were four painted full-length figures—two kings (possibly Henry III and Edward I) and two ecclesiastics. The reverse was decorated with the figures of St John as the Pilgrim, St Edward the Confessor, the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel (in the Annunciation). Half the painted figures were virtually destroyed in 1644, during the iconoclasm of the Civil War.
The condition of the sedilia is now so fragile that if one were to pass one’s hand over the surface, a considerable area of the surviving 700-year-old paint would simply fall off. Even though they are just beyond the reach of tourists’ hands, tiny paint fragments occasionally fall to the floor.
The throne, too, is on view but beyond the reach of the public in the ambulatory. It is moved, however, for every coronation to the area in front of the high altar, for the new monarch’s anointing and crowning.
The environmental damage is largely the result of heating in the abbey, which reduces relative humidity. This is now thought to vary from around 30% to 80% throughout the year, a very high range.
Last September small monitoring devices were placed throughout the abbey, to record temperature, humidity and light levels. This data will be used to devise an environmental strategy.
Although heating is essential for worshippers, it may be possible to reduce the temperature slightly. Another option would be to alter the heating system. The negative impact of direct sunlight, which also causes wood to dry out, could be mitigated. One possibility would be the installation of strategically placed cloth “sails” inside the windows, to block direct light on the vulnerable objects, but this would inevitably be visually intrusive.
Consultant conservator Ms Sauerberg expects that initial recommendations for an environmental plan will be made towards the end of next year.
In the meantime, conservation of the sedilia is an urgent priority, and last month the Dean and Chapter approved the work. This $50,000 project is being supported by the World Monuments Fund, with a Kress Foundation grant.
The work will involve a microscopic examination of the painted wood, and any lifting paint will be secured with an animal or synthetic adhesive. There will also be a light surface cleaning, with both dry cleaning (dusting and vacuuming) and wet cleaning (with de-ionised water). Old varnish and surface coatings will not be removed and there will only be minor retouching.
It is also intended to conduct a full survey of the sedilia, including photogrammetry, x-radiography and infra-red reflectography. All work will have to be done in situ, since the sedilia have never been moved in seven centuries.