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Chartres’ Flying Windows

18 February 2016

By Florence Hallett

When in 2014, six stained glass windows were removed from Canterbury cathedral to star in an exhibition at the Getty Museum, California and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, it seemed that the Rubicon had been crossed. As the Met boasted in its exhibition publicity, this was the first time that the windows had left the cathedral precincts in their 850-year history; now, they were not only to be removed, but removed far away and subjected to the extreme risk of air transportation.

In the past, various circumstances have led to the temporary removal of stained glass, with routine cleaning and maintenance the most common cause, followed by war and conflict. During the Reformation and the English Civil War and more recently during the Second World War, glass was, on occasion, removed and stored to protect it from danger.

This is of course, fundamentally different to removing glass in order to put it on display in museums thousands of miles away and thousands of miles apart. The glass at Canterbury, made by men alive at the time of Thomas Becket’s death in 1170, had seemed as immovable as the cathedral itself, a building old enough to have more in common with the rivers and hills than the relative transience of bricks and mortar. It is fair to say that the very fact of their transatlantic tour has changed the character of these windows irrevocably.

Art up in the air

Some 20 months ago, as the Canterbury glass touched down in New York from the Getty in California, we asked how in the middle of the one of the worst years in aviation history the Met could be confident of the safety of air transportation [How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures]. As we begin 2016 fresh with the news of recent air disasters, aeroplanes have not seemed more dangerous in decades – indeed, on February 15th this year, the Art Newspaper reported that American Airlines and seven others are being sued over damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.

And yet, preparations are underway for another cargo of stained glass to take to the skies, as windows removed as part of the controversial, wholesale restoration of Chartres cathedral form the centrepiece of an exhibition originally scheduled for 2016, but currently postponed, to be hosted by an as yet undisclosed US museum.

As at Canterbury, the removal of the Chartres glass for restoration has been taken as a convenient opportunity to send it overseas. Where we speculated as to whether the Church had received any payment for the loan of the Canterbury windows (a question to which we still do not have a definitive answer), in the case of Chartres, just such a transaction is known to have taken place.

A fund-raising quid pro quo

While the cost of the controversial repainting of the cathedral’s interior has been met by the French state and donors including Crédit Agricole, Caisse Val de France et Fondation, and MMA assurances, the restoration of the cathedral’s famous glass has been funded in part by the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), an organisation that works “to raise awareness in the United States of Chartres Cathedral and its unique history, sculpture, stained glass, and architecture and their conservation needs”.

Based in Washington, the AFC has ambitious plans to fund the restoration of the cathedral’s windows and sculptures. In 2013 it announced on its own site, and via the crowdfunding website, that in return for funding the restoration of the Bakers’ Window (two lancets and a rose in the nave), the 13th-century glass would travel to a US museum. Indeed, the still extant webpage makes explicit the nature of the exchange, proclaiming:

“American Friends of Chartres INVITES YOU to Restore and Bring to the United States a 13th-Century Stained Glass Window for Museum Exhibit


In appealing to members of the public to donate to the project, the AFC invokes American efforts to save Chartres from destruction during World War Two, treating the fundraising project as the corollary of the cathedral’s status as “a wonderful testimony to the friendship between the French and American people. The French people honor every year the memory of the Americans who contributed to saving the cathedral from destruction at the end of WWII.” But why, if the AFC is so concerned for the welfare of the cathedral, must the glass be removed from the building, and subjected to a transatlantic tour?

Speaking to French Morning in 2014 about the plans to exhibit the windows in the US, Dominique Lallement, the president of the AFC said: “The lancet windows measure more than 6 meters in height, which means there will have to be a structure built similar to the cathedral to accommodate them.” Given the success of the Canterbury exhibition, which represented a huge coup for the Met, already notorious for its ability to secure rare loans from reluctant lenders, the Chartres exhibition is likely to be equally high-profile, on a scale indicated by the planned construction of a special display area within some as yet un-chosen or unannounced venue.

A “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”

Perhaps the significance and sensitivity of the deal were indicated by the official reaction to architecture critic Martin Filler’s heartfelt but thoughtful attack on the repainting of the cathedral interior. In his blog on the New York Review of Books website, Filler expressed shock at the “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, and accused the French government of breaching the international rules of conservation established in the 1964 Charter of Venice.

As Filler’s article spread around the internet, those in charge of the restoration were notable for their silence. Patrice Calvel, the architect who oversaw the project prior to his retirement over three years ago was high-handed in his dismissal of Filler, saying that he had never heard of him. He had previously refused to respond to a highly critical report in Le Figaro, telling the Guardian that its author Adrien Goetz “has no competence in this matter.”

From the horse’s mouth…

Less reticent than the architects and restorers, however, was Caroline Berthod-Bonnet, who at the time was head of fundraising at Chartres, but has since left the role. Speaking to the Guardian in response to Filler’s blog she asked: “What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows to be displayed in the US?”

By highlighting the link between the restoration project as a whole and the loan of the glass to the US, Berthod-Bonnet’s comment cut to the heart of the matter, but without providing any plausible justification for so rash and ill-advised an operation. In fact, the only extended defence of the repainting project has come from Professors Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, American academics and members of the AFC’s advisory panel, the organisation masterminding the loan of the glass to the US. Responding to Martin Filler via the New York Review of Books website, they adopted a tone of weary condescension, describing Filler as “well-meaning but also misinformed”, conjuring up a picture of a hopelessly deluded aesthete, clinging to a romantic but impossible vision of glorious decay.

Revelations beyond restorations and recreations

Professor Hamburger has been a loyal supporter of the Chartres restorers, writing a second defence of the project for Apollo last April, in which he argued that “The restoration of the false masonry proved more of a revelation than a restoration, let alone a recreation”. Either naive or a wilfully blinkered interpretation of the flimsy evidence produced in support of the work, Hamburger’s statement ignores the complexities of the material evidence that exists while also dismissing out of hand the ethical, philosophical and aesthetic problems this project presents.

Hamburger and Caviness are keen to put distance between the deal struck in relation to the windows and the restoration project overall, but the relationship between glass and masonry is so thoroughly entwined, on every level, that they are not entirely convincing. Stained glass is such an intrinsic and essential aspect of any Gothic building, as exemplified at Chartres, that common sense dictates that any programme of cleaning and restoration must take into consideration both elements.

Accordingly, the rationale put forward by Hamburger and Caviness in support of the restoration hangs on the relationship between glass and masonry, and they insist that: “Combined with the restoration of the windows, the restoration of the original color scheme in fact enhances the perception of color in the windows.” In both intellectual and practical terms, the projects to repaint the masonry and to clean the windows are mutually and irrevocably dependent.

Such interdependency seems also to extend to the fundraising projects relating to Chartres. In their response to Martin Filler, Hamburger and Caviness emphasised that the AFC “raises funds only for the restoration of the windows” but fail to explain the function of this arbitrary divide. Dominique Lallement, president of the AFC, told us: “To the best of my knowledge, no donor to American Friends of Chartres is supporting other aspects of the restoration”. But records of donations made to the cathedral’s funding organisations over the past five or six years suggest that there has been overlap between the funding of different aspects of the restoration. In addition, there seems to have been professional overlaps among key players.

The Revelation Brokers

Both the president of the AFC, and its former vice-president, the late Pierre Louis-Roederer, are listed as donors to Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde (CSM), AFC’s sister organisation. In addition, the president of CSM, Servane de Layre-Mathéus is an honorary member of the Board of Trustees at the AFC, a position which affords no voting rights. Today, CSM raises money for the restoration, principally, of stained-glass windows but has also funded work on the organ, the steps to the high altar and the liturgical furniture in the choir and has a more general role in co-ordinating fundraising efforts made on behalf of the cathedral.

While recent fundraising efforts have focused on the restoration of the glass, in the lifetime of the current programme of works its scope has been broader. Indeed, CSM newsletters of March 2008 and February 2009 explain that in addition to financing the restoration of stained-glass windows, it contributed the full cost of a trial restoration of the Chapel of the Apostles (the axis chapel). This trial, completed in 2009, involved the application of a latex peel to reveal “the traces of old polychrome decorations” beneath layers of dirt. The 2008 newsletter anticipates that “The experience gained from these important preliminary works should enable the Monuments Historiques division of the Ministry of Culture to undertake the far more ambitious program of restoration of the vaulting of the nave.”

Asked to what extent donors to AFC are also involved in funding other areas of the project, Dominique Lallement said: “our fundraising activities are totally separate, as well as the use of our funds. To the best of my knowledge, CSM is also working only on the restoration of the stained-glass windows. CSM finances a percentage of the restoration costs of certain windows, and AFC finances other windows. Thus, for our first project, AFC financed 50% of the restoration costs of the 5 lancets of the South Portal, and the French Government financed the other 50%. For our second project, AFC finances 100% of the restoration costs of Bay 140, the Bakers’ Window.” While both CSM and AFC now confine their activities to the glass, CSM’s funding of a trial that informed the restoration overall, seen in light of the close working relationship between the two organisations, and the crossover of personnel, surely undermines the rather curious attempts to separate the work on the windows from the project as a whole.

Just as the French restorers have failed to respond to criticisms regarding the treatment of the cathedral’s walls, AFC have adopted a similar approach when it comes to sharing information on the cleaning and restoration of the windows. When we asked AFC to supply us with high-resolution files of their photographs showing the removal of the Bakers’ Window in Bay 140, Craig Kuehl of the AFC replied: “Before we provide the photos, we’d like to see your draft article, especially the references to the photos. Otherwise we can’t give the authorization.”

As advisors to the AFC, Hamburger and Caviness’s defence of the restoration programme clearly cannot be separated from the AFC’s prestigious and lucrative coup to bring the glass to the USA. The anxiety expressed above by chief Chartres fundraiser Catherine Berthod-Bonnet, seems astute in hindsight, having anticipated the wider consequences that such negative publicity could bring to the entire project – a project that, in truth, extended far beyond the cathedral itself and into an intended commercial deal with an American museum.

A petition demanding an immediate halt to the restoration work was started in the autumn by American student Stefan Evans and has attracted such high-profile signatories as Professor Sophie Guillouet, an art historian at the University of Rouen.

Watchdogs that Don’t Bite

The petition argues that the 1964 Charter of Venice – a document setting out internationally agreed principles for the care and restoration of ancient buildings – has been breached, and makes particular reference to articles 3 and 6. Article 3 stipulates that “The intention of conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence”, a guideline that would seem to have been compromised at Chartres not just because distinctions between building phases have been muddied, but also because evidence of 800 years of aging has been removed.

Article 6 states that: “The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed.” Critics argue that current interventions alter the relation of mass and colour fundamentally, and indeed, it could be argued that this is outcome is in fact the primary objective of the project.

In addition, article 11 appears to address the specific actions taken at Chartres, and emphasises the importance of seeking expert opinions beyond that of the person in charge of the project: “The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration. When a building includes the superimposed work of different periods, the revealing of the underlying state can only be justified in exceptional circumstances and when what is removed is of little interest and the material which is brought to light is of great historical, archaeological or aesthetic value, and its state of preservation good enough to justify the action. Evaluation of the importance of the elements involved and the decision as to what may be destroyed cannot rest solely on the individual in charge of the work.”

Given the concerns about the Chartres project raised by experts from around the world, the onus would seem to be on ICOMOS to investigate allegations of such a serious breach or breaches of the very charter that serves as the foundations for the organisation’s existence. But as the charter makes clear that each country is responsible “for applying the plan within the framework of its own culture and traditions” there is little prospect of any meaningful intervention from ICOMOS.

The plight of Chartres is further highlighted by the case of a member of the public who petitioned the European Parliament in 2013, demanding an immediate stop to the restoration at Chartres. A document issued on 31 January 2014, states “The European Union’s competence in the field of cultural heritage is limited.” Despite co-funding the restoration of Chartres, “the Commission cannot interfere in the way national cultural heritage is protected.” The petitioner, an Italian named Marta Mariani, was told that responsibility for the project lies with the French government and the regional prefecture. As neither international outrage nor a petition have so far elicited anything more than disdain from the French authorities, it is clear that no institution has either the teeth or the will to act.

STOP PRESS: At 17.33 today, in answer to an email of 14 February, Florence Hallett was notified by the American Friends of Chartres that:

“The exhibit of Bay 140 which had been envisaged will not take place because of cost reasons. And, to answer your question, of course all the proper authorizations from the French Ministry of Culture and other authorities had been secured by the DRAC-Centre Val de Loire, which had been nominated by the Ministry of Culture to execute the project. All the arrangements for the exhibit of Bay 140 would have been contractually arranged between the DRAC on behalf of the French authorities and the cultural institution that would have exhibited the window. American Friends of Chartres would not have been part of these contractual arrangements.”

Florence Hallett is architecture and monuments correspondent at AWUK and visual arts editor at

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Above, Fig. 1: Top, part of the Belle Verrière window at Chartres Cathedral.
Above, Fig. 2a and 2b: Part of Belle Verrière window, as seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).


The ‘after-cleaning’ photograph on the right is taken from the website of the “American Friends of Chartres”. It is said of the cleaned state of the window:
“Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.”
19 February: Although this ‘after-restoration’ image is of low resolution the comparison of pre- and post-restoration states is highly disturbing and we accordingly requested a high quality photograph of the Bakers’ window which, on restoration, was to be dispatched to an American museum. The American Friends of Chartres have declined to send one. Instead, they have in effect erected a Catch 22 obstacle, saying: “Show us what you’ll be saying in your article and photo-captions and we will then decide whether or not to supply them”. As Mr Kuehl presumably appreciated, we cannot possibly comply with such an irrational and perverse requirement – we can only comment on that which we can see. We therefore draw attention to the cautionary disparity between the Belle Verrière window before its treatment and afterwards on the available, already published photographs. In our organisational experience, reluctance on the part of restorers to supply high quality directly comparable before- and after-treatment photographs is almost invariably an indication that damage has occurred during treatment. There is much talk of ethics in conservation practice. If such is to have substance it is imperative that records of all of the various states of works be freely available to interested parties – how else might errors be detected and injurious procedures halted?


Certainly, on the evidence of the comparative photographs shown at Figs. 2a and 2b, there would appear to have been substantial losses of colour on the Belle Verrière window during its “restoration”. The claims on the American Friends of Chartres website that the colours are startlingly bright and that the colours now pop out are both vulgar and imprecise. Why should the colours of the glass at Chartres startle anyone? Why should colours that previously were both individually strong and collectively harmonious (as seen at Figs. 1 and 2a) have ceased to be so as a result of a restoration? With regard to the reliability of photographic evidence in these matters, we refer the reader/viewer to an earlier, and grotesquely bungled restoration, that of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Above, Fig. 3: Top, a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right). Above, a section of the Belle Verrière windows at Chartres Cathedral, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
We see at the top a small section of Michelangelo’s ceiling (as it was first published in 1988) with the pre-restoration state on the left and the post restoration state on the right. We recognised instantly on the evidence of this single photo-comparison that Michelangelo’s painting had been damaged by the removal of painting (chiefly black) with which he had strengthened shadows and modelling and, even, added details (such as veins on the oak leaves). At the time, the restorers and their art historical advisers all insisted that the removed paint had not been paint, that, rather, it had been arbitrary accumulations of soot and discoloured varnish that had built up over the centuries to produce…precisely the features which Michelangelo’s contemporaries had copied in engravings and drawings. We commented then on the preposterousness of that claim – which we have demonstrated many time since on this site. The comparison of the glass at Chartres, as seen before and after after restoration above, and at Figs. 2a and 2b, most disturbingly suggests similarly adverse restoration consequences. If the American Friends of Chartres will not permit proper visual appraisal of the consequences of a restoration funded by themselves through US tax-exempt donations, the French authorities should feel honour-bound to do so. [NB in the original version of this post we mislabelled the glass at Figs. 1 and 2 as being part of the Bakers’ window. Michael Daley, 19 February.]
Above, Fig. 4: An American Airlines plane. See left for an account of damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.
Above, Fig. 5: Chartres Cathedral
Above, Fig. 6: View looking west showing the painted masonry against the uncleaned masonry.
Above, Fig. 7: Detail showing the repainted masonry.
Above, Fig. 8: View looking SE showing painted and unpainted areas adjacent to each other.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Views of west end before restoration and painting.
Above, Fig. 11: View of west end after restoration and the painting of fictive masonry.
Above, Fig. 12: The west door before treatment.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: A detail of the west door before (top) and after (above) treatment.

Heritage Industry Abuses

We should be clear: the preservation of historical heritage has long since ceased to be considered a desirable end in itself. Today it constitutes a means for growing audiences and maximising revenues – as most notoriously is the case with the National Trust. Worse, as Florence Hallett reports below, it now also provides cover for concocting phoney histories to generate (chump) tourism.

“Exceptionally high levels of satisfaction”

The National Trust’s own heritage portfolio is proving a nice little earner. The trust employs over 7,000 permanent staff and a further 4,000 seasonal staff (in addition to more than 60,000 voluntary staff) at a total cost this year of £194 million. Its Director-General, Dame Helen Ghosh, would seem to earn between £220,000 and £229,000, with a further 97 staff members earning between £199,000 and £60,000. In surveys, the staff members express exceptionally high levels of satisfaction (97%). Growing visitor numbers and income is clearly a high priority for these administrators.

Above, Dame Helen Ghosh, who worked as a civil servant for 33 years – as photographed by Jeremy Young for the 24 February 2013 Sunday Times article “A wind turbine is a thing of beauty”.

Although National Trust visitor numbers are presently at a record high (21.3 million last year over 19.2 millions in 2013) the trust has expressed alarm because in surveys “visitor enjoyment scores” dropped by 2% last year to 60% – which figure is below the Trust’s own target of 68%. On 12 September the Daily Telegraph reported that the trust’s 4.2 million members – another record high – are said to be “getting tired of the most popular attractions and it [the trust] has to do more to make them interesting” (“The National Trust’s treasures are losing their lustre”). However, it may be the case that the members are aghast and dismayed by the National Trust’s self-declared “Disneyfication” policies under which properties can be held to contain “too much historic stuff” and to provide too few opportunities for “interactive” participation by all age groups.

(See: Sir’s not always right; Applying recreated authenticity to historic buildings in the name of their conservation; and, Bags and Abuses of National Trust.)

A Cultural Fraud at Chester – Florence Hallett, ArtWatch UK’s architecture and monuments editor, reports:

Plans to attach bogus gates to one of Chester’s most well-known historic monuments were realised temporarily last week, during an extraordinary spectacle commemorating the Queen’s 62-year reign. In an event that saw giant effigies of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II paraded through the historic Eastgate last Wednesday, commentary, and an especially composed poem were provided by husband-and-wife town criers, David and Julie Mitchell. A spokesperson from Cheshire West & Chester Council had said that the ceremony would involve recreating “gates at Eastgate with interlocking shields. As part of the pageantry, they will knock on the shields and be let in.” In the event, The Chester Standard reported that local businessman Gordon Vickers, the brains behind the campaign to attach gates to the historic structure permanently, arranged for Roman soldiers to hold up wooden gates, which the queens passed through.

Above and below, three photographs of the so-called Chester Parade from a group shown on photosnack.

So far, planning permission has not been sought for the controversial plan to attach iron gates permanently to the Eastgate, which Vickers claims could attract millions of visitors to the city. In January he told The Chester Standard, “This could rival the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace in London if it’s done in the right manner.” The Chester Archaeological Society has described the plans as “anachronistic” and a “historical pastiche”. Nevertheless, Historic England has expressed support for the plan, and this latest revival of the scheme suggests that planning permission may be sought some time soon.

STOP PRESS – 18 September 2015

On ArtWatch UK’s objections to the increasing traffiking of works of art, see “Works of art — handle with care”, the Financial Times and “Whatever happened to ‘Do Not Touch’?”

How ‘good taste’ destroyed art

7 April 2014

Florence Hallett writes:

The wretched prospect of an altarpiece deliberately diminished as a result of an historic acquisitions policy dominates the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The exhibition presents the weaknesses of the Gallery’s collection of German Renaissance paintings as a consequence of nineteenth century taste, which overwhelmingly favoured Italian art. The surviving panels from the late fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece were bought by the Gallery in 1854 on the instructions of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, the acquisition causing such public uproar that an Act of Parliament was passed to allow its resale. But instead of selling all the panels together, the Gallery retained eight so that the already fragmented altarpiece was, in effect, flung to the four winds. The altarpiece has been reconstructed for this exhibition, the National Gallery’s eight panels accompanied by monochrome reproductions of those held by other museums and making a sorry, perhaps even repentant, sight.

Florence Hallett is a freelance writer on art.

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Above, Figs. 1 to 4 showing the whole (top) and three section details (above) of the fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece which has been reconstructed for the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The monochrome reproductions represent panels sold by the National Gallery shortly after its purchase in 1854; they highlight the extent to which an already fragmented object was further diminished. (Photograph by courtesy of the National Gallery.)
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

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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