In his role as Surveyor to the Fabric at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the summer of 2016, Oliver commissioned and directed work to conserve an area of water damage to Sir James Thornhill’s scheme of inner dome wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St Paul. This required an improbably perilous-looking ‘crow’s nest’ scaffold perched high above the Whispering Gallery accessed via a tower scaffold. This was constructed on the external Peristyle and this gave access through a long, angled, narrow 600x600mm shaft through the dome masonry. Steeplejack scaffolders Stone Technical Services were given the challenging job of installing and striking the working platform. This became ‘home’ for five weeks to specialist wall painting conservators Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede to undertake their work.
Oliver recounts, ‘Being on the scaffold was a most extraordinary and memorable experience; we were pitched vertiginously into a void filled with all of the converging sounds and voices from the world above and below. Seeing the Thornhill painting at such close quarters has hugely increased my admiration for the artist and his skill in rendering scenes that work as effectively right in front of your eyes as they do at 60 meters above Cathedral floor.’
Stephen and Lisa first had to establish the nature of the salts on the painting’s surface brought through the building structure by incoming rainwater; and which had caused instability and paint loss. Small core samples were taken for analysis by drilling into the painting – through the layers of wax, varnish, paint, plaster and brickwork. Wherever possible the historic paint layer was consolidated and secured, but very loose material had to be removed and the surface prepared for re-painting.
A crucial part of the conservators’ work is making careful judgements about the extent to which the painting’s finished appearance is restored. Oliver’s role was to assess the overall visual effect. He, Stephen and Lisa enjoyed some interesting and detailed discussions about the final touching in, looking at their work from the Whispering Gallery through a zoom lens and also from the working platform. Oliver says ’Stephen and Lisa have enormous skill and patience and are amongst the range of such professionals with whom I have the honour and pleasure of working in my role at St Paul’s.’