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St Peter's Church, Northampton

28 July 2008

St Peter’s, which came to the Trust in 1998, lies about half a mile to the west of the modern centre of Northampton, although the archaeology of the area indicates that it once lay within the nucleus of the Saxon settlement from which the current town grew.

A problem with damp revealed

In the autumn of 2002 the internal fabric started suffering from excessive condensation followed by heavy mould growth. At this point we began monitoring and recording variations in temperature and humidity so that cyclical changes in the church’s internal environment could be analysed. Following a technical examination of the wall surfaces it was quickly established that, aside from a lack of heating, the main cause of the problems lay in the impervious oil-based paint that had once been used on the walls, meaning that the walls could not breathe. Subsequent analysis also confirmed that the under layers of paint contained protein content, which acted as a source of nutrient for the mould growth.
St Pater's Church, Northampton 2The long-term solution to these problems lay first in providing low-level background conservation heating, then in removing the mould growth, stripping off the impermeable paint layers and redecorating the walls with a breathable limewash.
Following the reinstatement of heating and with the mould removed a series of trials was initiated, using different materials and techniques, to ascertain the most effective method of stripping the paint. With the paint successfully removed necessary plaster repairs were carried out and the walls given four coats of limewash.

Rediscovering the chancel east wall

The chancel’s east wall had been overpainted along with the rest of the interior, but traces of an 1878 decorative scheme had been revealed, still apparently in good condition, during earlier examination of the wall surfaces. The full extent of survival, however, could only be determined after wholesale uncovering. This entailed removing the covering layers of paint in a more sensitive, and time-consuming, manner than the rest of the walls and much of it was carried out laboriously by hand, using scalpels.

The decoration was found to have survived largely intact, with only minor surface damage due to small-scale pitting of the plaster caused by the entrapment of moisture behind the later layers of paint. At this point plaster, pigments and the original varnish protection were analysed. A meeting was held on site with the local conservation officer and a representative of English Heritage, who agreed to our proposed conservation treatment.
Because the design was symmetrical, and largely stencilled, the reinstatement of the few small areas affected more significantly by salt damage was felt acceptable. The exposed wall first received a coat of Paraloid B72 consolidant to isolate the original paint and ensure that subsequent reinstatement work would be reversible. The damaged areas of stencil were then touched in using appropriate pigments mixed with a Paraloid B72 binder.
While it is not normally the Trust’s policy to reinstate, the removal of the impermeable layers of paint was deemed essential and the exposure of the decorative scheme therefore provided an unexpected opportunity to recreate Scott’s original intentions.

The new limewash to the aisle walls had the unfortunate effect of making the wall monuments, many dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, look comparatively dingy so both they and the reredos were given a gentle conservation clean.

A new face to the world

St Pater's Church, NorthamptonWith repairs nearly complete, it is now time to put St Peter’s back on the national map – an appropriate phrase, since William Smith, the pioneer geologist (and subject of Simon Winchester’s acclaimed The Map That Changed the World) is buried there. We hope to involve the wider community of Northampton and the tourist office as well as the existing Friends organisation in promoting both this church and many other unique and impressive buildings in Northampton. The local authority has a scheme under way in which St Peter’s could be one of the ‘gateways’ to the town.