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Paraders of the lost ark

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TECHNICAL & PRACTICE: The conservation of Exeter Synagogue has provided a fascinating history of a way of life hidden for centuries

Exeter Synagogue is the third oldest active Jewish place of worship in the UK. Built in 1763, it presents an unassuming facade that was designed to blend in with the surrounding architecture. Located in a back alley between a bingo hall and a car park, its presence still remains largely hidden from most people.

It had been badly damaged during the Second World War and was suffering from poor repair work and subsequent deterioration of the fabric and fittings. The threat posed by dwindling numbers mirrored a nationwide problem that has resulted in the closure of many synagogues.

Fortunately, with the help of English Heritage, Exeter City Council and various others (see below), Exeter Synagogue, listed Grade II*, has been given a new lease of life. The congregation, with its place of worship now secure, is enjoying a revival.

The initial work consisted of keeping out the rain, which was coming through a leaking lantern, sited above the bimah, the platform from which the torah scrolls are read. This lantern, patched up over the years with standard windows and surmounting a light-well squared off in plasterboard over a plastic laylight, had lost all original detailing. A new elongated octagonal lantern was designed, based on surviving evidence identified both at the synagogue and elsewhere, and the light well was reshaped.

With the building now watertight, attention could be given to the internal features. An internal report highlighted in particular the appalling state of the ark (the focal point of the synagogue), where the scrolls are kept.

Inside the intimate confines of Exeter Synagogue the ark is a striking feature, modelled on the ark in the Bevis Marks Synagogue (built in 1701) in the city of London.

Coated in many colours When first inspected, the ark was in a state of collapse, and in urgent need ofconservation. Constructed of softwood, it was painted to imitate exotic marble, although layers of heavily discoloured varnish obscured the paint surface, which was also covered in places with layers of thick overpaint. Tests were carried out to explore what lay beneath the surface deposits, and a vibrant and rich polychromy was revealed.

The priority was to dismantle the ark, upon which it was found that the Commandment Boards were fixed with a single holdfast and that the collapsing, decaying pedestals had no internal structure. After dismantling, the ark ended up in about 50 pieces, and it was in this state that it was cleaned, with dramatic results. Loose pockets of paint also needed consolidating, and where losses had occurred it was necessary to infill and then reintegrate the new fillings. This was carried out over a reversible varnish, applied to protect and enhance the cleaned surface. All processes used materials sympathetic to the original materials.

Cleaning revealed that the main body of the ark was currently painted to imitate a pale cream and green marble, veined with a delicate blue and crimson highlighted with a heavier black veining. By contrast, the plinth was painted in imitation of a rich green veined marble, with striking black markings. However, as cleaning progressed, it became apparent that the ark retained several schemes of painted decoration and had a far richer history than had hitherto been recognized.

Layers on layers Features such as the capitals and the urns, most recently painted with a heavy black gloss paint laid over a layer of bronze paint and plaster, were no longer clearly defined, and removing the surface varnish in these areas would not suffice. This black was also used to frame the Commandment Boards, though the earlier marbling could be seen to be continued beneath. It was therefore necessary to carry out a detailed examination, with a microscope, of many tiny windows through the paint layers in order to obtain as full a picture as possible. Pinhead-sized paint samples were also prepared for examination, and these revealed a complex history.

Up to 29 layers of paint were in evidence, and showed that features such as the urns, capitals and columns were gilded at various stages in their history, while a red 'porphyry' colour also featured strongly as a background for the texts as well as on the urns. Before this red scheme, dated tentatively to a redecoration described in the Jewish Chronicle of 9 June 1854, a blue had been dominant, probably dating from a restoration in 1836. Fragments of an even earlier decoration, based on a rich vermilion scheme, were also observed. These may belong to the original paintwork of 1764.

As well as providing invaluable historical information, these investigations aided the decision-making process on what to do about the black overpaint and the ark doors.

An earlier text was also revealed, surviving beneath the present text on the Commandment Boards, finely painted by a more skilled hand. The carving of the capitals was obscured by a plaster coating, which had contracted away from the lower layers, resulting in air pockets and a complete loss of form.

Although it was tempting to go back to the dark red porphyry scheme, it would have entailed either destroying the beautiful marbling or presenting the Ark as a mixture of periods, which was unacceptable. It was therefore decided to regild the appropriate elements after isolating and protecting earlier paint. But the only way to remove the deforming plaster on the capitals was to manually scalpel it off, saving as much as possible from earlier schemes. Regilding was carried out, using a variety of techniques and effects, such as glazing.

The ark doors, grained in the 20th century in imitation of medium oak, are for the most part hidden by curtains. However, for those moments when the curtains are drawn back in order to remove the scrolls, the doors are visible and the grain was considered to be both damaged and inappropriate. Although the fronts were stripped before graining, the insides showed evidence at the earliest period of two tones of a darker grain, followed by red and then by green. The red and green appeared to belong to more recent periods and a mahogany type was selected, as close to the two original schemes and in keeping with the present marbling and the graining elsewhere.

Rebuilding the Ark After consolidating decayed wood, structural needs were addressed by rebuilding the pedestals around sturdy softwood frames, designed to take the weight off the skirting, and the columns were refitted with internal posts to take the weight of the entablature. Using stainless steel holdfasts, the ark was reassembled on a rebuilt dais of treated timber on a dampcourse on foundations - allowing for ventilation and moisture barriers, particularly in the inner chamber where the scrolls are housed.

The eight painted wooden columns which support the ladies' gallery were also in need of attention.

Covered in a similar, discoloured varnish to the ark, these columns needed cleaning, consolidating and revarnishing, with some regilding on the capitals. Colour, reflecting the richness of the ark polychromy, is as a result once again brought into the darker corners of the synagogue.

Alongside the work on the ark itself, completed over 18 months, it was necessary to carry out work on the supporting wall, and a rotten lintel was replaced. The general ventilation was improved and central heating was installed, with radiators concealed below the seats.

The rear seating, damaged by damp, had been replaced in the 1980s with undisguised ply bench seats and tongue-and-grooved seat backs.

These were removed and new seating was designed following the form of the existing panelling, and surviving armrests were reinstalled. Elsewhere, the benches were repaired and the original broken arm rests and book supports reinstated. The new joinery was grained to match the existing graining and areas of paint loss on the original woodwork were reintegrated.

The ironwork around the gallery, ark and bimah, painted in recent years with bronze Hammerite paint, still retains two or three schemes of a rich green paint, which relate to the ark polychromy. At some stage in the future it may be possible to remove the inappropriate and unattractive Hammerite and, by exposing an earlier scheme, add further rich colour to the synagogue interior.

Conservation of the Exeter Synagogue polychromy has provided an important introduction to the study of the materials and painting techniques used in synagogues. However, probably executed by non-Jewish craftsmen, the painting continues traditions used in churches and monuments of the period. Interestingly, a contemporary royal arms in a nearby church still retains its original marbled frame, which appears to be based on a vermilion scheme. This may well relate to the earliest period of painting identified on the ark, but is too fragmentary to reconstruct.

Forthcoming conservation work on the royal arms should prove particularly interesting.

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