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The Westminster Retable: technically daring and now in danger

£250,000 needed to restore the greatest English medieval altarpiece

The Westminster Retable, the greatest early English painted panel, is “highly endangered” and in need of urgent conservation. Westminster Abbey is now trying to raise £250,000 for the work, which is likely to begin early next year.

The painted altarpiece, probably dating from the 1270s, is evidence that English art was highly advanced. The wealth of decoration on its frame, particularly the glasswork, is unmatched by any European panel paintings of the period. Recent examination has revealed that it was painted with linseed oil on gesso, not tempera as had been assumed. This makes it the earliest oil painting in Europe, along with the newly discovered pair of small ceiling panels from the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, dating from 1264. According to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the retable shows a level of technical innovation which anticipates work from Sienese circles of the early fourteenth century, in advance of Duccio. The anonymous artist of the Westminster Retable was also “an ancestor of later Flemish painting methods”.

The eleven-foot long retable was probably commissioned by the king to hang behind the abbey’s high altar. It depicts Christ, the Virgin Mary and St John in the centre, surrounded on both sides by four medallions of gospel scenes, with the figures of St Peter on the left and another saint on the right (although now lost, it was probably St Paul). It was taken down from the altar by the sixteenth century and thereafter suffered serious damage; for a long period it was used to form the lid to a box for storing wax funeral effigies. In 1827 the oak panel was rescued and put on display.

Its condition is now described by the Hamilton Kerr Institute as “alarming”. The gesso ground is weakened and shattered. The glass ornamentation is becoming detached. The delicate paintwork is threatened both by the insecure ground and by the coating of nineteenth-century glue varnish, which has become very brittle. Comparison of the retable with detailed photographs taken in 1897 reveals an alarming loss of paint during the past hundred years.

“Extensive conservation is now essential”, according to Hamilton Kerr director Ian McClure. Total costs are estimated at about £250,000 and the Getty Grant Programme has recently pledged £100,000. An application is being made to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Initially it was hoped to conserve the retable in the abbey, but it has now been decided that it would be better to transport the panel to the Institute in Cambridge in a specially cushioned case. This will be an extremely delicate operation, requiring months of preparation. At the Hamilton Kerr Institute the retable will be kept in a climatically controlled studio.

Conservation is likely to take up to three years. The oak support will need close examination for warping or infestation. The gesso ground will require full scale consolidation probably using gelatin or fish glue or if this proves unsuitable, synthetic adhesives. The glass ornaments will be re-attached. The main challenge will be to remove the glue varnish layer covering the paint surface. Initial attempts will be made with a gel, but if this might soften the gesso ground, then mechanical removal will be considered. Filling and retouching will be limited to small losses, using the 1897 photographs as a guide. Retouching will only be done with the approval of an Advisory Group which has been set up by the abbey to supervise the conservation.

The work should help answer one of the key questions about the retable-its date, which lies somewhere between 1260 and 1290. The back of the panel has remained inaccessible since the retable was moved to the South Ambulatory in 1902, but at Cambridge it will be possible to subject the oak to dendrochronological examination. When the Westminster Retable finally returns to the abbey, probably in 2000, it is hoped to house it in a purpose-built gallery.