In 1604, the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England was published which laid down the relationship between the Church and the State. It also had detailed instructions of how each Church and Parish was expected to be run. Within this long document was the instruction which stated:
"....and that the Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said Churches and Chapels, in places convenient. All these to be done at the charge of the parish....."
The present boards, comprising not only the Commandments, but also the Creed and Lord’s Prayer, were purchased by the Church in 1752. William Maddox and Thomas Pritchard were the Churchwardens at the time and their accounts show they paid a bill to a Mr. Dutton for
“Painting and Lettering ye Commandments, Spent wh we agreed with ye painters and Spent wh ffetchd ye Commandments”.
Unfortunately the amount they paid is unreadable, although the total expenditure for the year was £27 11s 6½d. The work probably cost around a pound.
This photograph, taken around 1900, shows the boards in place on the East wall of the Church. Note the plasterwork and interior decoration. At some time (probably when the organ was purchased in 1909) they were moved to the rear of the Church on the West and North walls.
The boards had become damaged by water, accumulation of dirt (remember the lighting in the Church was by oil lamps and candles) and the mounts had rusted and failed. The boards were only supported by leaning on each other!
The Parochial Church Council (PCC) took the decision to investigate their conservation. Contact was made with the National Conservation Centre and they recommended Fine Art Conservator Vanessa Andrew, who had done conservation work at a number of North West Churches. She was commissioned to produce a conservation report, which involved a detailed examination of the boards in situ and test cleaning with different solutions. She was of the opinion that they could be successfully repaired and conserved.
The PCC took the decision to start the conservation before further damaged occurred and opened an appeal to provide the necessary funding of over £3,000. The most seriously damaged board was the first to be sent to Vanessa’s studio at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, but unfortunately as soon as it was removed from the wall it was obvious that the frame itself was badly rotted on the underside and was crumbling away. It looked as if a new frame might be required. Our intention was always to conserve the boards rather than restore them to an “as new” condition and this would have been a major setback. Vanessa suggested that a colleague from the National Museums Conservation Centre in Liverpool, Germaine Denn, might be able to help. The frame was taken to Liverpool where she carefully injected it with a resin solution to stabilise the rotten wood. This avoided the need to replace the frame, and preserved the integrity of the whole board.
Restoration of this very badly damaged board involved a number of processes. In order for the canvas to be flattened enough to pre-stretch the painting, heat and moisture were used over the surface. Once the canvas was sufficiently relaxed, the painting was placed face up on the table and wet brown paper strips, approximately 20cms wide, were laid around each edge and stuck to the painting with gum paper tape. The outer edges of the brown paper were stuck to the table with similar brown gum paper tape. As the paper dried out it contracted and put the painting under an even tension from all sides and this treatment pulled out the worst of the distortions. The canvas was cleaned of a thick layer of surface dirt, damage to the fabric repaired and retouched and regilded with gold leaf where necessary. A new stretcher that holds the canvas in place completed the conservation. The work exceeded our expectations and it is amazing to see the before and after pictures of this process.
Generous donations have enabled the Church to conserve the other three boards, which have been thoroughly cleaned and retouched. Fortunately, they did not require the same amount of repair work to be done to the frames or canvases.
The boards represent the foundation on which we build a Christian life and a Christian community and having conserved the boards it was suggested that they should be re-sited away from the dark corner which had previously accommodated them to somewhere that would enable them to be displayed in all their glory.
A number of options were considered, including replacing them in their original position on the East wall, but this would have involved removing the existing panelling and quite a lot of structural work. It was decided that their new location would do them justice.
Because St. Michael’s is a Grade 1 listed historic building, formal permission needed to be obtained before any alterations to the structure or fabric of the building can be made. This involved making an application to the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Chester for authority to reposition the boards. This was granted on the 22nd November 2011. It has taken over a year for all the work to be completed.
Vanessa with the first board to be conserved
The PCC are very grateful to all who have contributed to the conservation of the boards and especially to Vanessa and Germaine for their skill in helping to preserve the fabric and history of this ancient Church of St. Michael.
A service of thanksgiving and dedication was held on Sunday 4th December 2011, when the boards were unveiled by Robert McConnell, and Lavinia Whitfield MBE, who are the longest serving members of the Church and by Mathew and James Allen who are the youngest .
Click on any of the thumbnails below to see a full size image.