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Save a medieval rarity spared by the Reformation and Civil War: Thornham Parva retable in urgent need of conservation

Unless a small Suffolk church can raise £168,000 to conserve one of the earliest English paintings, it may have to sell it

The Thornham Parva retable, the greatest surviving fourteenth-century English altarpiece, is in urgent need of conservation. Paint is flaking off the panel and experts at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge warn that it must be consolidated to prevent further deterioration. But unless the church in the tiny Suffolk village of Thornham Parva can raise the funds, the retable may be sold.

“We hope to raise the money, but if not then we would have to consider lending the retable to a museum, or even a sale”, said Martin Kay, church warden and co-chairman of the parish council.

The twelve-foot long retable depicts the Crucifixion, flanked by eight saints, each set against a gilded background in an arched frame. It was discovered hidden in the stables of Thornham Hall in 1927 and was then given to the local church of St Mary’s. According to a label on the panel, it had been bought in a 1778 sale from a farm in the Suffolk village of Stradbroke. Recent research suggests that the retable dates from about 1335 and was originally made for the Dominican priory of Thetford.

It has also been established that the Thornham Parva retable was produced in the same workshop as an early English frontal now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and the two were almost certainly part of the same altarpiece. How the frontal reached France remains a mystery, but it was bought by the museum from a Parisian antiques dealer in 1864.

The Thornham Parva retable has now been subjected to a detailed examination at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, revealing that the recent flaking of paint has been worse then expected. “The most serious problem has been caused by eighteenth-century overpaint, which has set up pressures and caused the original paint to pull away from the oak panel”, explained director Ian McClure.

One of the worst affected areas, the drapery of St Catherine, has been studied in detail. Removal of a small section of overpaint, presumably added after the 1778 sale, has revealed that the surviving original passages of paint are remarkably fine, although in need of consolidation.

Unfortunately, the condition of the panel has been worsened by the reframing of the retable in 1989 by conservator Herbert Read, after its return from the Royal Academy’s “Age of Chivalry” exhibition. The glass of the protective case was placed too close to the panel, restricting air movement, and this has already led to the growth of mould. Brass screws were used to secure the vertical planks of the painted panel to the upper canopy, and because of the acidic nature of the oak these are showing signs of corrosion.

Although the Hamilton Kerr Institute is convinced of the necessity of urgent conservation, this is disputed by some experts. David Park, head of the Courtauld’s Conservation of Wall Paintings Unit and co-author of a book on the Thornham Parva Retable, favours minimal intervention. “I am not convinced that there is significant flaking and would like further monitoring of the panel before any work is undertaken”, he said. After Park had expressed his concern, three international experts all confirmed Mr McClure’s judgement.

The parish council has now agreed to the Hamilton Kerr proposals. The panels are to be reattached to the canopy with wooden dowels, replacing the present brass screws. Wax, discoloured varnish and non-original paint layers will be removed from the painted figures, first using solvents and then a scalpel. Consolidation of the original paint is to be carried out with a fish glue. Areas of loss will be filled and retouched and the paint layer protected by a surface coating of synthetic varnish.

A new glass case will also be made for the retable. The church has damp walls and although it might be possible to control the humidity of the interior, this could damage the thirteenth-century wall paintings, through the formation of salts on the surface. McClure therefore suggests that a local dehumidifying device should be inserted behind the case.

Conservation work, which should take two years, will begin as soon as the necessary funds are raised. It is hoped that the Hamilton Kerr’s costs of £168,000 will be met by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and English Heritage. A further £60,000 is also needed by the church to install essential environmental and security devices, as well as to set up an endowment fund to maintain them.

Completion of the work would offer the unusual opportunity of temporarily reuniting the Thornham Parva Retable and the Cluny frontal for an exhibition, thus bringing together two parts of a medieval altarpiece that have been separated for centuries.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Save a medieval rarity spared by the Reformation and Civil War'