2.3. Recording, conserving and interpreting wall paintings

One of the areas in which the potential of digital creativity to inform the conservation and management of a particularly fragile aspect of cultural heritage has been clearly demonstrated, is the documentation of schemes of mural decoration and wall painting. At St Vitus' cathedral, Prague, for example, digital recording permitted conservators to view the corrosion problems of a 14th-century mosaic in new ways, but also informed proposed conservation strategies and provided a tool for future condition surveys (Eppich et al. 2007). At Valencia Cathedral, the virtual reconstruction of a cycle of 15th-century frescos played a crucial role in persuading architects, conservators, historians, engineers and other stakeholders of the need to dismantle a Baroque ceiling vault to permit the conservation of the paintings beneath (Lerma and Perey 2007).

In Europe, recognition of the particular vulnerability of wall paintings has led to the production of international guidance following the principles of the Venice Charter (ICOMOS 2003). In the UK, English Heritage has played a leading role in coordinating and disseminating best practice in the discovery, documentation, conservation and interpretation of ecclesiastical and secular schemes of paintings (Babington et al. 1999; English Heritage 2002; 2005; Gowing and Heritage 2003; Gowing and Pender 2007; Hughes 2002; 2006 and the work of ICON). Staff and students of the Courtauld Institute have pioneered the scientific understanding and remedial conservation of wall paintings (Cather 1991; 2003; 2007), alongside the scholarly interpretation of the contemporary meaning and use of these schemes (Park 1987; 2003; Rosewell 2008). This work builds on a longstanding Antiquarian and scholarly interest in British medieval wall paintings (Borenius 1923; 1924; Caiger Smith 1963; Keyser 1883; Tristram 1933; 1944; 1950; 1954; Rouse 1991). Online resources such as Anne Marshall's remarkable catalogue 'The painted church' have used digital images to bring a thematic and chronological understanding of paintings to scholarly and public audiences alike.

The capacity for programmes of heritage conservation to reveal hitherto-hidden schemes of wall paintings has attracted considerable public interest and financial support from bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). In the UK, this is particularly the case in the context of medieval church wall paintings, where conservation projects often provide heritage drivers for enhancing public engagement. Case studies include Miriam Gill's work on the Doom painting in Holy Trinity, Coventry (Gill 2011), Tobit Curteis' conservation of St Mary's Houghton on the Hill, Norfolk, Jane Rutherfoord's current work on St Cadoc's church, LLancarfan (Glamorgan) and Chalgrove (Oxfordshire)), and the relocation and reconstruction of St Teilo's church, Llandeilo Tal-y-bont, and its painted scheme at St Fagan's Museum, Wales (Organ 2011).

However, as Hughes (2008) has argued, the increasing specialisation of the conservation profession, coupled with budget constraints, often results in conservators being excluded from the scholarly interpretation of wall paintings. Too often, the analysis of the iconography and meaning of paintings is perceived as the preserve of academics, or heritage professionals. There is therefore a clear need to develop greater dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration between conservation and heritage professionals. This is particularly the case in the context of public funding in the UK, where the HLF requires projects to demonstrate not only that heritage assets are better identified and recorded, better managed and in better condition as a result of investment, but also that through such work, the public will have learned more about their cultural heritage and changed their attitudes and behaviours towards it. HLF-funded projects are expected to build capacity, enhance the quality of life and, often, boost the local economy. These outcomes resonate strongly with the demand of funding bodies such the Arts and Humanities Research Council for publicly funded research to demonstrate evidence of social and economic 'impact' beyond the academy.

Figure 1
Figure 1: St. Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath (Suffolk) Nave looking east © The Perry Lithgow Partnership
Figure 2
Figure 2: Mark Perry, Conservation Director, at work on the main pier of the north arcade, St. Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath (Suffolk) © The Perry Lithgow Partnership

What, then, is the potential for digital creativity to afford academics, conservators, cultural heritage professionals and communities innovative solutions to this challenge? An important case study is provided by recent work at St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath. In 2004 Tobit Curteis Associates carried out a survey of a remarkable series of wall paintings dating from the mid-13th century to early 17th century in the nave and chancel of the church. From 2009, an HLF-funded project led by the Perry Lithgow Partnership sought not only to document the cycle, remove the wax treatments that had misguidedly been used to try and preserve the paintings in the 1950s, and consolidate and conserve the paintings, but also to create a website and a series of teaching resources for the local community and visitors to the church (See; Figures 1-3). One of the acknowledged limitations of this project, however, was the limited funding available to research and develop digital reconstructions of the scheme; a subject that resonates not only with the Stratford project but also with recent debates about digital reconstruction in archaeology more generally.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Risen Christ St. Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath (Suffolk) after conservation, with inset reconstruction of the original appearance of vermillion pigments by Perry Lithgow © The Perry Lithgow Partnership


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