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 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.