Wednesday 27 November 2013

Assessing the State of the Chapelle de Tous les Saints

On Thursday 21 November I attended a meeting at the mairie (town hall) and then a site meeting to discuss a way forward with the restoration of the Chapelle de Tous les Saints. Bernard de la Motte, President of the Société d'Archeologique de Preuilly (SAP), has been beavering away in the background, networking like mad and making contacts who may be able to help. He's contacted every organisation he can think of who might be willing to offer technical assistance or a grant.

Jacques lifting a paving stone to check the original floor level, which was lower.
Along with him and me at the meeting there was Gérard Thoreau, the deputy mayor and fellow member of the SAP, Jacques Guionnet, an architect and deputy departmental officer for the Fondation du Patrimoine (Heritage Foundation), Sabine de Freitas, a wall paintings conservator, and Corinne Tual, a muralist.

Photos, including those taken by Simon for the project, were handed round and Bernard spoke about the 20th century history of the chapel. The heritage professionals studied the photos and outlined the main risk factors they expected for the building. Sabine said the paintings appear to be absolutely typical in terms of style and pigments for this area at the very beginning of the Renaissance ie the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 16th. They expected the main problem to be damp, but preventing entry by animals would also be important, and removing any cement based render. Everyone agreed that stabilising the building must be the first step, and work on the wall paintings must come later. It emerged that the paintings are not included in the official classification of the building as a historic monument. Bernard would really like to get this anomaly sorted out and Jacques agreed, but didn't think it was too much of an issue.

Sabine gently investigates the wall paintings using a small dry brush while Bernard holds a torch for her and watches the procedure with interest.
The poor state of the carpentry was discussed and Jacques outlined a method by which a steel bar fixed with resin could be inserted into the main cross beam. Bernard (or Gérard) has got quotes from local masons and joiners just so we have an idea of how much the work will cost. There was some discussion about choosing an artisan who has the right delicate touch with restorations of this nature. Everyone agreed that an 'as new' look is not desirable. The quotes from firms such as the Loches based Menet, who do most of the serious historical restoration in the area, indicate that our budget for the building (excluding the wall paintings) should be about €35 000. Fortunately the roof is in quite good condition, but the walls, carpentry and floor all need work. Bernard has also spoken to an commercial architect who is experienced in heritage projects, and luckily the heritage professionals attending the meeting all knew and liked the architect Bernard named.

It is the facade facing the street (the north wall) and the rebuilt western gable end that Jacques Guionnet felt were likely to be of the most concern, as damp could be causing colonisation by various organisms. He was also concerned about the floor, because there is a chance that there had been an earlier building on the site. He guessed correctly that the building does not have any foundations, and was probably just built on a bed of crushed limestone.

 Sabine knocking the walls to see how well the plaster substrate to the paintings is adhered to the wall.
Gérard was able to reassure him that the soil isn't wet and the ground and the timbers have been tested for humidity. The floor along the walls is in good condition, although it is missing from the centre of the building. Sabine initially felt that fungal and algal growths were a real risk, but after a site inspection announced that the walls just have algae, with no sign of fungi or salts.

Fitting the roof with gutters and downpipes and creating a drain on the north side is crucial. The building would not originally have had gutters, but today it is considered a necessary compromise in order to safe guard the structure long term. Jacques suggested copper guttering, which everyone agreed would be lovely, but much more expensive. There was some discussion about the church at La Celle Guenand, which has been closed for years and has the most terrible damp problem and as a consequence is host to a myriad of micro-organisms. Everyone is very shocked by the state of this building and the lack of action to sort it out. The village of La Guerche also came up in the discussion, held up as an exemplar of how well a village full of historic buildings can be maintained.

Sabine using a scalpel to gently remove layers of render and expose the underlying painting, to compare its condition to that which has been exposed for some time.
Jacques outlined how the restoration project could be funded, with the Fondation du Patrimoine's help. The first thing is to raise a public subscription, aiming to collect 10 - 12% of the total project funds. Once we've raised about 5% we can call for tenders to do the work. The Fondation specialise in small, often vernacular, heritage building projects and are able to help both public organisations and private individuals. They can grant a maximum of €25 000 to a public body and up to 65% of the funds for a private project (I think I have that right).

An alternative is we apply for grant money to be given in tranches, with each stage having to be completed to the Fondation's satisfaction before the next tranche is released. Along side this our public subscription must run for the length of the project. The chapel at Ste Maure de Touraine was also referenced and their fundraising flyer presented as the type of thing we should be producing. Ste Maure used the funding in stages type of grant. The idea is for the fund raising and project management to be administered by the SAP, with support and technical advice from the Fondation du Patrimoine. The commune of Preuilly would have to join the Fondation, but for communities of less than 1000 the fee is just €50, so not too onerous I would have thought.

Sabine marking the areas of concern on a diagram of the paintings.
A third alternative, which also has the advantage of meaning the project can start quite quickly is to use the first part of the project as a training opportunity, taking youngsters who are learning to be masons to work under the supervision of an experienced mason. This is the less sensitive part of the project in terms of the technical skills required but setting it up is apparently quite complicated (there are legal issues about who can pay whom). Luckily, Jacques is very keen on this sort of solution, and is the driving force in the Fondation for establishing it as a way of working. The students would concentrate on repairing the bases of the walls to 30cm below ground level and re-doing poor repair work on the gables.

The upshot is that they think the project is worthy and Jacques has agreement in principle for the Fondation to assist us. It is clear that the heritage 'industry' is really complicated, and he made the comment that many communes are not up to date with all the organisations who can help and how they interact. This is where his experience will prove invaluable.

 Sabine taking a close up photo of the various layers on the wall.
With regard to the paintings themselves, Sabine's assessment is that it is not a terribly difficult job to stabilise and clean the wall paintings and the polychrome oak vaulted ceiling. She would retouch a few areas where there are gaps, but a wholesale repainting is not considered best practice. She would treat the walls to kill the algae and fill any fissures, re-attach flaking paint and fully expose all of the paintings by gently taking off the render. This will enable us to make a better judgement about who all of the characters are (she's a bit dubious about some of the current interpretation). She also suggested bringing in electricity when the floor is repaired.  This is not for lights, but to run thermostat controlled heating. The ideal conservation temperature for the paintings is between 13 and 15 degrees celsius. She expects there are more paintings above the ones that are currently exposed, perhaps the coat of arms of the family who commissioned the work, for instance. She estimates the work will take two people two months. She commented that there was a certain amount of 'de-restoring' to do, where amateurs in the past have attempted to 'restore' certain figures. She said that in places like Saint Savin, most of the work was actually 'de-restoring'.


chm said...

Fascinating post, Susan. As I said before, I keep all my fingers crossed, including toes [!].

I remember, being a youngster in Saint-Savin in 1940, being able to look at a painter who was copying the wall paintings for the Musée des Monments français. It was before de-restoring! LOL

Tim said...

Fascinating post Susan...
N&A mentioned what you had told them about this the other day...

I am with Jacques on training younger people the old skills...
to me, it is vital for the continuing preservation that there is a constant supply of skilled craftspersons...

But governmental bodies never seem to take that into consideration...
their views are far too short term.

Sheila said...

All very interesting, Susan. I've
seen artists turn news gutters
into old by painting faux vert-
de-gris on them.

John said...

Susan, thanks for your full and informative account of the site visit. Would that we had been able to be there as I'm sure it would have been fascinating.

The prospect that there might be other paintings higher up is also very exciting.

At least there is now a sense of movement in the right direction.

How to get access to local wallets and thus meet the need for the local contribution to costs will also perhaps require some serious thinking and effort on the part of the SAP.

Anyway thanks again for the Blog contribution.

the fly in the web said...

This is so reassuring...that despite the various admin and legal hurdles people with energy and goodwill can get a project into being.

Do keep us up to date.

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