Tag Archives: Craftsmanship

Leaving no stone unturned…

Most visitors to Durham Cathedral are not aware that stored in the west end of the late-eleventh century undercroft of the old refectory, on the south side of the cloister, are several hundred carved stones.  These represent some 800 years of construction at the cathedral church and priory buildings.

For me, it was a great privilege to be offered the opportunity to photograph nearly 150 carved stones from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  As a fieldworker and board member of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, I spent a week in Durham examining the standing architecture, as well as the loose stones at first hand.  Most of the loose fragments had never been photographed before, so there was much to discover!

In October 2014, along with Dr Jane Cunningham (fellow fieldworker) and Jon Turnock (post-graduate student), we spent several long days in the undercroft, where I photographed the individual stones and they measured and took notes. I re-visited the undercroft in 2015 for a few days to complete the photographic survey and have since been uploading the numerous photographs and measurements onto the Corpus site, ready for the descriptions and background information to be written up.  It will still be some months before the completed work for the Corpus is made available to the public at large, but this will result in a permanent and complete record of the carved stones at Durham from this period.

How these stones came to be preserved in the undercroft is a long story, but repairs, excavations, and changes to the buildings over many centuries provide the main explanations. Their preservation is crucial for understanding how certain parts of the cathedral looked at various stages, and how these parts should be correctly repaired and maintained in the future. It is, for example, only through these stones that the east end of the Chapter House was accurately rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.

But the stones also allow a glimpse into what buildings (or parts of buildings) looked like initially.  Durham was one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in medieval northern England and it’s effect on architectural developments elsewhere was enormous. The intricately carved stones affirm a keen interest towards elaborate and high-quality decoration on the part of various bishops and their desire for ever more ornate and refined work.

The carved stones confirm, as well, an awareness of the latest developments taking place elsewhere.  Durham’s bishops were determined to have the best sculptors and architects and have left us a legacy to enjoy and appreciate for centuries to come. Researchers from around the world will also in future be able to carry out fuller and more detailed investigations into the nature and development of architecture and design of this period, and this should help to enhance a better understanding of the past. It is my hope that many more people, as a result, will be able to experience a thrill of the past through these fascinating stones.

James King

Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland

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A spring clean with a difference!

Some people are passionate about people, some people are passionate about places, but I’m immensely passionate about stones. There’s nothing more rewarding than conserving beautiful stones and sculptures that have stood the test of time, and preserving them for future generations.

Over the years, I have been privileged to work on projects at many prestigious institutions from Hampton Court Palace to the National Galleries of Scotland. And now my sculpture conservation company has been employed by Durham Cathedral, to conserve their extraordinary collection of Roman and Anglo-Saxon stones, ready for display in the Cathedral’s new Open Treasure exhibition, opening in spring 2016.

The collection of stones at Durham Cathedral is truly remarkable. There are over 80 ancient stones, including eight Roman pieces, and the majority date from the Anglo-Saxon period, including inscribed stones, cross shafts, and hogbacks. The historic and cultural importance of this collection is outstanding, and being able to work closely with such incredible artefacts is a real honour.

Together with six other conservators, I have been responsible for cleaning and stabilising the stones. The cleaning process is done with great care and sensitivity, leaving in place any past painted archival markings and surface patina that reflect the history of the stones. We have also been consolidating and filling any fine cracks with a special inert fill and removing any cement filler used in years gone by, which can actually damage the stones.

Although we’ll never know who created these beautiful carvings, I can’t help but feel a spiritual connection with those who originally carved the stones many hundreds of years ago. Their tools would have been somewhat similar to those still used today, but without our modern tungsten tipped chisels, and their passion for stone carving is unmistakable. One can see what may be remains of drill holes in some of the carvings. This creates a bond across the centuries between us as conservators and the Anglo-Saxon stone carvers, making the process of conserving stones an incredibly moving and often spiritual journey.

Working in the magnificent Monks’ Dormitory has also been an honour. This stunning fourteenth-century space is one of the most remarkable rooms I’ve worked in, and the height of the stones draws your attention to the medieval oak-beamed ceiling overhead. As the stones are so heavy, they have remained in-situ whilst the Monks’ Dormitory has been restored to its former glory, protected by special coverings. But when the Open Treasure exhibition opens they will finally be unveiled in all their glory to be admired by thousands of visitors each year.

If we’ve done our job properly, then people won’t even be able to notice that the stones have been conserved! But when we see the stones in their rightful place at the heart of the Open Treasure exhibition, we will certainly feel immensely proud of our role in this wonderful project.

Graciela Ainsworth

Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation, Leith, Edinburgh

The stones will be exhibited at the start of Open Treasure, close to the entrance to the Monks’ Dormitory, providing a breathtaking introduction to the exhibitions. Their re-display and interpretation has been funded by a £130,000 grant from The Monument Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts.

Through the Keyhole – A Joiner’s Experience of Open Treasure

The Open Treasure project at Durham Cathedral is opening up a new exhibition route through some of the Cathedral’s remarkable historic spaces.

A major part of the project is the transformation of the fourteenth-century Monks’ Dormitory. Many visitors will be familiar with the room, which has been used as a library since the 1840s. It has a spectacular oak-beamed ceiling and is lined with wooden bookcases built from English oak.

One of the big jobs for me and the Cathedral’s other two joiners has been the creation of doors for the bookcases. These will keep the books safe and allow us to continue using the room as a working library once it is opened as an exhibition space.

We had to make over eighty doors in total and because the bookcases were originally handmade, no two doors are the same. Each bookcase is slightly different from the next in shape and size, and even within each case the left and right doors are not perfectly symmetrical. This meant that for every door we had to carefully measure the case and create a plywood template. Then we used the template to cut the door from European oak before attaching a metal grill and a lock mechanism. We started this daunting task in February and it is impossible to say exactly how many hours it has taken us, but it has definitely been an extremely time-consuming job!

At the moment we are busy hanging the doors so that the polisher can come and varnish them. Each of the bookcases is a subtly different colour thanks to the way the sunlight has faded them over the centuries, so he can’t pick the right shade until they are in position.

The beauty of our job as joiners at the Cathedral is that we do such a variety of tasks – and these doors definitely provided us with a new challenge. I must confess that by door number fifty we were sick of the sight of them, but now we can’t wait to have them all hung and polished. It will definitely feel good to get the job done and to see people enjoying the new exhibition space.

Tony Swallow, Joiner