Press Release: West Dean College of Arts and Conservation students conserve 19th Century Nativity figures in time for Christmas service

Earlier in the year, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation were contacted about conserving a selection of painted plaster figures from a Nativity scene. Potentially dating from the 19th Century, the figures had been residing in local church, St Mary the Virgin, Upwaltham (West Sussex). The students had a deadline of returning the three figures to the Church in early December, ahead of their Christmas service!

Under the direction of Conservation of Ceramics and Related Materials Programme Leader Lorna Calcutt, MA Conservation Studies student Andriani Maimaridou, and Workshop Associate Mariana Bareda started by assessing the condition of the objects and considering their treatment options. As Lorna Calcutt explains, “These lovely figures are part of the congregation’s Christmas celebrations and it is important to respect the material integrity of the objects, as well as their symbolic significance.”

MA Conservation Studies student Andriani Maimaridou said, “Painted plaster objects from a church setting can often harbour moisture, so it was essential to allow the objects to be fully dry before undertaking any further testing or conservation treatment”.

The figures of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus were delicately surface cleaned and areas of loss were filled, then retouching of those fills began by using acrylic resins. 

Requiring the most amount of work was the Joseph figure. Unfortunately the head had been detached from the body and the missing areas required attention – the team firstly tested to see if a tape could be used temporarily to bond the head with the body. This was tested on the base of the figure to establish whether it would be safe to use near a painted surface. 

Luckily, following further investigation, it became clear that the two separated sections could be bonded with the benefit of gravity as they interlocked effectively. A wooden crib was also brought to the College with the figures, which the Conservation of Furniture team are working on.

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Notes to editors

  • West Dean College of Arts and Conservation was founded in 1971 by the poet and Surrealist patron, Edward James, recognised by BBC Arts as the ‘the greatest patron of art of the early 20th century’.
  • The College is part of The Edward James Foundation (Charity No. 1126084), also comprising West Dean Gardens, West Dean Estate and West Dean Tapestry Studio.
  • All photography is free to use for editorial purposes.
  • For more details on the Church and its Christmas services, please visit www.stmarysupwaltham.com

    For all media enquiries please contact Rachel Aked:
    Email: rachel.aked@westdean.org.uk
    Telephone: 07790 732448

    West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 OQZ