Conservation students conserve 19th Century Nativity figures in time for Christmas service

Earlier in 2019, 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 Nineteenth Century, the figures had been residing in local church, St Mary The Virgin, Upwaltham (West Sussex).

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 (as venerable as St Mary The Virgin) 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. With the head being detached from the body and missing areas requiring attention – the team firstly tested to see if a tape could be used temporarily to support with bonding 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 worked on.

The three figures will return to St Mary The Virgin Church in early December, ahead of their Christmas service.

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School of Conservation

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