Artwatch UK

Brighter than Right, Part 1: A Modernist Makeover at St Paul’s Cathedral

June 1st 2011

I’m the 17th surveyor to the fabric after Sir Christopher Wren and am responsible to the Dean and Chapter for the care and conservation of the cathedral”, the architect Martin Stancliffe told Fiona Campbell of the Financial Times Magazine (“Lord of all he surveys” January 10th 2004) and, he added, “If there was anything I could ask Sir Christopher Wren it would have to be what his intentions were for the interior of the building.

We were startled by this apparent admission of ignorance about the original condition of the interior at a time when the cathedral authorities were over three years into a most radical and experimental restoration of it. Two years earlier the stripped stonework of the cathedral’s newly cleaned south transept had been presented to the press (and widely accepted) as a “recovery” of Wren’s proper original condition. It had specifically been claimed in a press release (“Restoring the glory”) and press interviews that by “returning” the interior stone to its natural state, Wren’s intentions were being shown “for the first time”. (For the post-cleaning state of the stone, see Figs. 4 & 5.)

As the final stage of the building of St. Paul’s was reached in 1709, Wren ordered the interior to be coated three times with oil paint. His son later said that this was not just “for beautifying, but to preserve and harden the stone”. That there is much evidence for what Wren had considered to be beautifying was shown by the art historian Florence Hallett in two articles in the ArtWatch UK Journal (“Cleaning St Paul’s Cathedral”, No. 17, Autumn/Winter 2002, and “The supposedly ‘model’ restoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral”, No. 18, Spring/Summer 2003). In essence, Wren’s aesthetic purpose had been to unify the interior surfaces by suppressing all arbitrary blemishes and irregularities (see Figs. 4 and 5) that had arisen during the building’s thirty-five years long construction, so that his own finely adjusted architectural forms and decorations would read at their best.

Analysis of surviving sections of Wren’s paint was only undertaken – we discovered – after the stripping began. It had established that, in addition to lead white, ochre and black pigments had been included to produce a warm “stone colour” and not a pure white finish. This was precisely the warm effect found in other Wren churches and the effect recorded in early paintings of St. Paul’s’ interior (see Fig. 1). Had these findings been available before the cleaning programme began, would its aims and methods have been different?

Mr Stancliffe has disclosed that prior to 1999 a “comprehensive repainting of the interior” had been considered in order to return it to the true state at which Wren left it, and “to unify the interior”. This was rejected on two grounds. First, it would “result in a finish which, to modern eyes, would seem bland and perhaps inappropriate”. (Perhaps this trumping of historical authenticity by modernist aesthetic sensibilities had been a hangover from Mr Stancliffe’s own early career spent with the modernist firm Powell & Moya?) Secondly, because it would “undo the work so carefully and laboriously executed in the 1870s to strip Wren’s paintwork”.

One might have thought that an architect charged in the 21st century with protecting the fabric and artistic integrity of an ancient cathedral would have felt more loyalty to the original architect’s (painted) creation than to a 19th century predecessor Surveyor’s misguided and botched attempt to undo it. There are grounds for concluding that, as with 19th century church-stripping restorers before him, imposing whiteness and brightness on an originally coloured decorative scheme was Mr Stancliffe’s own and primary objective in this restoration. After stripping the interior, he told the Guardian (“Interior of St Paul’s – brighter than even Wren saw it”, June 10th 2005) that: “During the 35 years of its original building the architect had the Portland stone painted in several thick layers of oil and paint to protect it from the elements before the roof was put on, so it never was as white as now.

This was misleading. While it was true that no one had ever seen all the stones in the cathedral as if simultaneously quarried and dressed, this was because by the time the construction of the cathedral was finished, the first laid stones had been exposed to the elements and London’s pollution for over a third of a century. Wren’s 1709 instruction to have the interior painted “3 times in oyle” was made 34 years into the construction when the roof was in place and it was far too late for the paint to act as weatherproofing. Moreover, in the cathedral’s own1999 proposal for treatment, it had been tacitly acknowledged that Wren’s paint served aesthetic not weatherproofing purposes because it had been applied late to “cover the uneven effects of the new stone inserted where the supports to the dome had cracked” and to “unite and brighten” the whole interior.

To unite, certainly, but brightening, we should be clear, was Mr Stancliffe’s idée fixe not Sir Christopher Wren’s. In a programme note (“How the glory of St Paul’s was restored”) to a service held at the cathedral on June 1st 2005 in honour of the restoration’s donors, Mr Stancliffe declared that “the heart of my vision for the interior [was] to clean it and relight it” – even though Wren had not brightened the interior to a state of whiteness and the cathedral was not being “relit” to original levels but lit to unprecedentedly high ones. Further, Mr Stancliffe had specifically boasted in the Times of June 10th 2004, of his own “pretty controversial” intention to introduce “six huge chandeliers” to flood the interior with artificial light. A year later he told the Guardianwe have installed new chandeliers and more lights”. Also in 2005, Mr Stancliffe expressed satisfaction on “seeing our initial vision gloriously realised.

Thus, by courtesy of the banker Robin Fleming’s generosity, the cathedral’s 17th surveyor has been permitted by the church authorities (and by architectural heritage watchdog bodies) to have his own way with Wren’s great, once-painted interior, which now resembles a plaster cast of itself that is lit to department store levels (see Fig. 3, right). As well as being historically false and aesthetically/spiritually inappropriate, the present vulgar fix of whiteness will prove transitory. No surface is harder to maintain and keep free of dust, grime and finger marks than a white, porous, (and now) highly chemically reactive one in the fluctuating environment of a tourist thronged building.

Coda: Mr Stancliffe had sought an even whiter finish. It was his intention to lime-wash the stripped stone surfaces. Ironically – and much as critics among conservationists had predicted – his chemically invasive cleaning method has left the now exposed raw stonework chemically vulnerable. Trial applications of lime-wash kept turning brown. Research that is reported in the conservators’ own house organ, ICON NEWS, (May 2011 issue, p. 30) discovered that humic acids within the stone were being drawn to the surface by the water-based lime applications. For centuries Wren’s oil paint had rendered the stone surfaces hard and impervious and thereby provided a barrier against disfiguring chemical interactions and migrations. Mr Stancliffe has been hoist with his own petard.

In part two, we will examine the controversial and health-threatening chemical means by which Mr Stancliffe’s whiteness and brightness were achieved.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: the original interior of St Paul’s Cathedral as recorded in an undated but apparently 18th century painting that is owned by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
Above, Fig. 2: the Nave of St Paul’s Cathedral, looking towards the Dome and the High Altar, as seen c. 1990.
Above, Fig. 3: a Stancliffe chandelier in action, as seen from under the Dome and as published in a programme for a Choral Evensong service performed on June 1st 2005 in honour of the Donors to the St Paul’s 300th Anniversary Appeal.
Above, Fig. 4: a cleaned section of carving on the south transept, as photographed by ArtWatch UK.
Above, Fig. 5: a cleaned section of stonework on the west side of the south Transept, as seen in daylight and photographed by ArtWatch UK. David Odgers of Nimbus Conservation, the firm that carried out the stone cleaning, has admitted that “Of course, cleaning stone reveals all the blemishes on the surface”. As a result of this cleaning, he added, “A great deal of time has been spent in trying to reduce the visual impact of such imperfections, and this has involved pointing, stone repairs and removal of grout spills.” (But not of painting, which Wren had found necessary and desirable.)
Above, Fig. 6: As part of the great interior clean-up, all of the (mostly marble) monuments on the Cathedral Floor have been steam-cleaned. Steam cleaning is considered an acceptable “conservation technique” even though it is visually deadening and leaves marble resembing white granular sugar. We have witnessed conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, painting steam cleaned Greek marble carvings with water colour paints. When asked what he was doing, one replied that he was “putting back the patina” that had been destroyed by the cleaning method. At St Paul’s Cathedral, the all-white, sans-patina effect seems to have found favour.
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