Medieval wall paintings (xiii cent.) at St John the Baptist Church-Cold Overton

Last Summer/Autumn (2018) I undertook an interesting and complex conservation project of medieval paintings (late xiii cent.) at St John the Baptist church – Cold Overton (Leicestershire).

The surviving wall paintings, for a total of six scenes (St Catherine, Gathering of the apostles, Nativity, St John, Funeral procession of the Virgin, St Margaret?), are located on the South and East wall of the South aisle. They are constituted of a coarse lime putty plaster(applied in an irregular fashion without being finished flush and plumb and appears to be applied in one layer over the stone wall) and of a thin white-cream lime-wash ground, followed by one or two pigmented layers. The range of pigments employed in the scheme is limited. Mostly the figures are outlined only with very few areas of saturated fill colours.

It is not clear when the paintings were discovered under the lime-wash layers. However the condition of the wall paintings showed that they underwent significant restoration treatments at least in two past occasions. The paintings were covered by a thick coat of wax, which heavily attracted dirt and dust, and for that the paintings appeared very dark.

On the basis of the materials used (coat of wax), and the type of treatments that were undertaken, it seemed probable that the oldest intervention would have been carried out between the 1920s and the 1950s by Prof. E. W. Tristram, who undertook similar conservation treatments in many other medieval paintings in England. However, no record of the treatments was found. However the paintings were recorded in water-colours by Tristram in 1928 and conserved now at the V&A archive. In 1950 these water-colours were also published in the English medieval wall painting. Vol. 1 & 2, The thirteenth century; with a catalogue by E.W. Tristram, compiled in collaboration with M. Bardswell. Vol. 1 pages 532-533; Vol. 2 Tables: 113 a&b, 114 a&b, 115 a&b.

Theremains of old and thick lime wash on all the scenes were quite extensive and often were still hiding details of the paintings. In fact, it appears that when they were discovered the majority of the surviving paintings were favourably uncovered along with the profile of the figures, leaving subsequent lime-wash layers mainly over the plain areas. In addition to that, in many areas are visible the tool marks of a quite crude uncovering action.

The most recent repairs, belonging of a later intervention, are made in pink modern filler similar to Polyfilla There are a number of large plaster repairs which cut into the painting, some of which have been retouched, over-painted or incised in order to suggest drawing lines.

The 2018 conservation project was undertaken in two phases. The first phase focused on stabilising plaster layers severely detached and of paint layer flake fixing. The second phase focused on cleaning, reducingas much as possible the wax coat applied in late 20s; uncovering as much as possible the original areas from the extensive lime-wash residues; consolidatingthe paint layer; removingand replacingthe fills and repairs that failed or weren’t at all sympathetic with the original surrounding; blending in the new fills in order to reduce their aesthetic disruption; provisionally lime wash was applied on the surrounding plastered areas of the exposed paintings.

The removal of lime wash layers revealed both original painting areas and plaster losses. The most important discovery during this uncovering phase was made on the figure identified in the past as St Margaretalong whose chin were revealed consistent traces of a beard, which obviously now identified it as a crowned male figure.

Here few photos of the Cold Overton paintings before, during and after conservation treatments.

General view of the Nativity scene before and after the conservation treatments.

Detail of the Nativity scene where the unsympathetic Polyfilla repair (left) that was removed (centre), uncovering more original paint area and then the loss was repaired again with lime-sand based mortar (left).

Detail of the Gathering of the apostles scene before and after the conservation treatments.

General view of the Funeral procession of the Virgin scene before and after the conservation treatments.

Detail of the Funeral procession of the Virgin scene before, during  and after the uncovering treatments.

Detail of the Funeral procession of the Virgin scene during  and after the uncovering treatments.