The Blanche Mortimer – Lady Grandison Tomb
Conservation work was finally completed on 18th April 2014 after nearly 3 years. Michael Eastham, conservator of sculpture, has been working for nearly 3 years on this wonderful, mediaeval tomb. Blanche died in 1347 and there was evidence that various repairs had taken place, none of which were of any quality.
The tomb was in a very poor condition and finding the right person to take charge of this very sensitive conservation and restoration was of considerable concern to the PCC. We were recommended to visit St Mary’s Church in Abergavenny and see the amazing work that had been carried out there on several tombs and some twenty wall plaques. We were so impressed with the quality of the work and knew we had to find out who had done it. At the same time, a church guide was purchased and on the inside cover was a photograph of HRH the Prince of Wales who is patron of St Mary’s. We were given Michael Eastham’s name and we knew that we had found our conservator and the rest is history.
Work started in 2011 when we had to obtain a conservation report from Michael in order to make an application to the Diocesan Advisory Committee for approval to apply for a faculty from the church chancellor to obtain permission to conserve the tomb. This was a lengthy process and many meetings sitting in front of the tomb took place to decide how to proceed. Finally the PCC were granted permission to undertake “investigatory work”, whereby Michael was able to remove the effigy of Blanche and look to ascertain what was beneath.
At this stage we did not know whether the tomb was full of rubble, whether we would find her body or whether it was empty. In the event, Michael found large stones which were part of the original church wall. Further meetings took place and the PCC were given permission for Michael to proceed with “further investigatory work” after which he removed the two front panels to gain access to the area beneath the stone wall. It was at this point that we discovered that Blanche was lying beneath the stones in a lead casket.
Further permissions had to be sought from the church chancellor in order for Michael to remove the casket, which were duly granted. Removing Blanche was not easy. Rev Howard Mayell was summoned and he said prayers for Blanche before any more work was carried out. It was a deeply humbling and momentous occasion for the five of us who were present.
We then had the worry about what to do with her as the lead was very fragile. Questions were asked as to whether English Heritage would wish to investigate the contents of the casket and after much discussion it was agreed to do nothing. However, the PCC had to take steps to hide her in a safe place and our local carpenter, Brian Nash, made a coffin for her to rest in during the 3 years whilst the conservation work took place.
To prevent the tomb from collapsing civil engineers advised that major shoring up took place, which made the structure safe but the work more difficult!
At this juncture Michael decided to carry out work on the upper part of the tomb and found that behind the small shields down as far as the bottom of the large shields, it was full of earth and rubble. This was removed to reveal a stone platform. He then discovered that the centre part of the cornice was far from original, having at some time in the history of the tomb been remade from rubble, stone and mortar like a stone wall. This then needed to be replaced with a new carving which has been made from Ancaster White stone, being the nearest match to the Painswick stone which the tomb was originally made from, the quarry for which is now defunct. It can be seen that the PCC were given permission to remove all the “putties” running through the top of the cornice as they were not contemporary with the original tomb. The new cornice was carved by Robyn Golden-Hann, a bespoke carver from Salisbury – http://www.bespoke-memorials.co.uk/
The whole of the area above the effigy had many joints that had been filled, probably in 1952, with concrete all of which had to be removed and sensitively replaced with lime mortar. This conservation work is now difficult to see!
Michael then moved to work at ground level. Having removed the two large panels he needed to lift the plinth that they were set on. This revealed part of a ledger stone with a floriated cross which, in the resetting of the stones, remains in place but was not visible once the panels were reinstated after Blanche was returned to her resting place.
Michael undertook lengthy and complex preparation work before Blanche could be laid back to rest. This involved building a stone platform from stones taken out of the tomb for her coffin to rest upon. He decided to use marine grade stainless steel supports for the church wall stones that are above the casket and at either end of her body in preparation for repatriation of her body. This involved making accurate templates in order to instruct the steel fabricators.
Once all this work had been carried out Michael had to prepare the casket for its return to the tomb and at this point he added new lead around Blanche’s feet and mid torso to prevent any bones or debris from escaping.
The day arrived to return Blanche to her resting place and Michael’s assistant Bianca Madden, a wall painting specialist in her own right, came to help undertake this sensitive work. Unfortunately this could not be completed as the space was about half a centimetre too short!! Panic as the film crew spent the day filming the process. The next day or so brought our local wrought iron specialist Dave Preston from Ledbury out with his acetylene to try to cut off one of the new feet supports and reposition it to allow the casket to fit the space. There was hardly any room for Dave, wearing full protective welding gear, to get his head inside and see what he was doing. To his credit and our amazement he did the job. No mean task. Following this, Michael and John Chapman had another attempt to return Blanche and in the quiet of the church, without spectators, they were successful with only a millimetre or two to spare. What a relief. This meant that Michael could now start replacing the panels.
Once the panels were replaced it was the turn of Peter Martindale, polychrome specialist, to commence work on the conservation and repainting of the coats of arms. http://www.petermartindale.org.uk/
When this was completed it was time to return the effigy to the tomb chest. This sounds like a quick and easy process, but in truth was time consuming bearing in mind that it weighs some three quarters of a ton.
Finally it was time to reorder the floor in front of the tomb and again after much discussion it was decided to drop the floor to the original earth level, set it back from the tomb to allow it to breathe and place washed 10mm Hereford pea gravel on top of the earth with a Forest of Dean stone surround. For those of us who have worked day in and day out with the conservator and any visitors to the church, one would think that the floor had always been as it is today. A truly successful conservation.
The PCC have been given permission to place a smart barrier around the tomb and security has been installed. Visitors are now very welcome to come to the church, which is open daily during daylight hours.