English Heritage conserves rare wall paintings at Farleigh Hungerford Castle

English Heritage has begun work to conserve a rare medieval wall painting of St George at Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset. Damp conditions and misguided early 20th century attempts at preservation have left the imposing painted figure in need of urgent care to protect it for future generations. Expert conservators have begun the task of re-fixing flaking paint and removing damaging wax residue as part of a programme of work to conserve the painted interiors of the castle’s chapel.

The image of St George is one of a number of wall paintings and decorations in the castle’s chapel – largely commissioned by Walter, 1st Lord of Hungerford, when it was refurbished in the early 1440s – that will be conserved as part of the current work. The image of England’s patron saint is the most substantial remaining wall painting, with a scarcely traceable figure of a kneeling knight wearing a tabard of the Hungerford arms alongside.  Since their discovery in 1844 the wall paintings have suffered badly from damp conditions, and previous preservation attempts in the early 20th century sometimes did more harm than good. Well-meant but misguided preservative treatment with hot wax, applied between 1931 and 1955 and removed by English Heritage in the 1970s, drew up red pigments from the under-layer of paint and irrevocably turned the backdrop from the intended light grey to a rusty pink.

Following a detailed survey, work has begun this week to save these rare and delicate paintings from serious deterioration or even permanent loss in the future. In this first stage of works the residual wax will be removed, hot lime grout will be injected behind flaking paint, plaster will be re-attached, and lacunae (or gaps) in the plaster will be refilled. The chapel’s west porch will also be the subject of conservation work with repairs to the plaster and painted decorations. Each task involves painstaking precision, and the use of very specific materials to ensure the longevity of the work, as Rachel Turnbull, English Heritage’s Senior Collections Conservator, explains:

"Farleigh Hungerford’s wall paintings are a beautiful and important example of medieval art, giving us a unique insight into the once rich interiors of the castle. Conserving centuries’ old artworks like these is a delicate and complex task, and we can see here how previous, well-meaning, conservators sometimes got it wrong. Our expert conservators have carefully analysed the condition of the wall paintings to find just the right method for each part of the work. It’s a painstaking process, but vital to ensure these historic paintings can be enjoyed by generations to come."

The work at Farleigh Hungerford is part of a nationwide effort to safeguard all 77 precious wall paintings in English Heritage’s portfolio. These include those at Bolsover Castle, Lullingstone Roman Villa, Wrest Park, Berry Pomeroy Castle, and Longthorpe Tower. Funding for the conservation programme comes partly from the Save Our Story – Wall Paintings appeal that was launched by English Heritage in 2019.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle stands in the beautiful valley of the river Frome, just nine miles from Bath. Started in the 14th century, the fortified mansion the castle was for 300 years the home of the Hungerfords, a family that after distinguished beginnings suffered a series of disasters and scandals. Today the castle remains include two tall corner towers, a Priest’s house, a chapel complete with family tombs alongside the rare medieval wall paintings, and, for those who are brave enough to enter the crypt, there’s the best collection of human-shaped lead coffins in Britain.

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