Conservation Treatment of a Romanesque English Rood Figure

By Helen RobertsonHistorical Context

This early English rood figure is believed to date prior to the middle of the 12th century and may even be late Anglo Saxon. As there are only a few surviving examples, it is hard to visually compare like with like. However, aesthetically, it does bear a striking resemblance to stone carvings and brass work of the period, which have survived in greater numbers, to place it in the Romanesque era.

Carved from oak, this figure would have been at the heart of its religious community and placed on, or above, the Rood Screen. However, during the reign of Edward VI iconoclasm reached a fevered pitch resulting in royal injunctions, in 1548, ordering the removal of all religious images from English churches. Rood figures were to be burnt, but thankfully, some were rescued from the flames and, usually walled up within the church, remaining a hidden part of the parish.

This figure was discovered during a 1960s refurbishment of a church in Orpington, Kent. For this and other examples, their existence had been forgotten over time and their long incarceration, generally in quite a damp conditions, inevitably resulted in the rotting of the timber.

There are believed to be only 4 or 5 discovered examples of carved oak English Rood figures of which only 2 have been fully documented. These are the British Museum's South Cerney figure, dating from c.1130, and the V&A's Cartmel Fell, c.1400.

On discovery the figure was sold to a collector in Northern Europe, where it underwent treatment. It is easy, in reflection, to criticise the materials that they used as at the time, they were probably viewed as a safe, long term option. However, with hindsight, it is clear to see how that treatment was having a detrimental effect on the object.

The figure must have been in an incredibly fragile condition with scorching, resulting in contraction and splitting of the exterior surface compounded by wood rot working its way from the internal heart wood out (fig. 3). To stabilise the figure, and to reduce the loss of further original material, a PVA-based wood filler was applied over the exposed rotting areas and the whole consolidated with a wood rot treatment (fig. 4). This certainly introduced strength but, as the rot treatment had not been applied to those areas that really needed attention, and were now hidden under a thick layer of wood filler, the deterioration of this material continued.

In addition a fixing ring had also been applied, in the figure's back, to enable wall hanging. This had been held in place by the addition of an expanding foam adhesive which had worked its way through the body of the figure (fig.5). Sadly, the acidity of such material, on untreated wood surfaces, resulted in powdering of the contact surfaces.

The figure has now been returned to the UK to a client who wanted the figure visually restored to the day of its discovery whilst stabilizing the rot and fully consolidating the piece. The figure will then be housed in an environmentally-controlled display case.

This is an important, and rare, piece of religious art which needs to be considered and dealt with sympathetically whilst adhering to museum conservation parameters.

Decision Making Process

On initial inspection it was evident that the previously-applied wood filler was having a detrimental effect. Over time it had shrunk and this contraction was pulling away the original material, around the contact area, from the body of the piece.

The removal of a small section of the filler, to facilitate inspection of the original material beneath, also highlighted that these areas had not been consolidated prior to the application of the filler and that deterioration was on going.

It was essential to remove this filler both to stabilise the surface damage that it was creating and to treat and consolidate the hidden wood rot.

This was also reflected in the decision to recommend the removal of the expanding foam adhesive which was also having an acidic corrosive effect.

It had also been mentioned by the owner that he may consider in the future attempting to carbon date the figure. To facilitate this I recommended the removal of a loose section of the figure's left hip, which would then be replaced on completion of all work, thus keeping it uncontaminated by any consolidants or solvents used during the treatment.

Once these issues had been addressed the piece could then be completely consolidated and returned to the client.

It was important to remember that this piece not only held a significant culture and financial value to the client but, also, one of great spiritual value. With this in mind, communication at every stage of the treatment process was imperative.

The following treatment was undertaken to ensure this figure's survival.

  • The wood filler was solvent-tested to ascertain its composition. It dissolved easily in acetone, suggesting a PVA base. However, the colour leach could not be controlled and removal in this way was not the recommended option.
  • The filler was quite flexible and, as it had been laid over a loose surface, had not fully adhered. With care it was possible to mechanically remove it. This had to be done in small sections as the underlying oak was rotted and loose, in some cases powdered, and prone to falling from the main body. To alleviate the problem it was immediately consolidated. This was achieved using a consolidant of 15% Paraloid® B72, an acrylic co-polymer, in acetone. Due to the speed at which the acetone evaporated the surface could be quickly consolidated thus avoiding further loss of original material. However, this rate of evaporation also brought the Paraloid B72 back to the surface causing a glossy finish.

  • Initial tests were carried out as to the suitability of consolidating the whole figure in a vapour tent using a combination of 50 : 50 acetone : butanol mix, the principle being that the acetone would draw the consolidant into the body of the piece whilst the slower-evaporating butanol would hold the Paraloid B72 down to reduce surface gloss. However, the resultant swelling that occurred on several test pieces of similarly rotten oak, was too extreme and may have resulted in the original material "splitting out".
  • Therefore, it was decided that consolidation, with the 15% Paraloid B72 in acetone, should be continued. This was applied externally whilst injecting, where possible, into the interior of the body.
  • It was necessary to reduce the appearance of areas of surface gloss. To achieve this industrial methylated spirit (IMS) was applied, and the surface lightly stippled, to disrupt the light reflection and reduce the shine.