Skelton-cum-Newby: An altar front to treasure

Church of Christ the Consoler, Skelton-on-Ure, North Yorkshire

Church of Christ the Consoler sits on the estate of Newby Hall, home of Lady Mary Vyner in the 19th-century.

Lady Mary's son, Frederick, was held to ransom and tragically murdered while travelling in Greece and she spared no expense in building the church as part of an extravagant outpouring of grief and emotion.

The interior of the church is wonderfully rich and colourful and the altar frontal, designed by William Burges, is only one element in the extravagant decoration of the church.

Exquisite detail

  • A ribbon of embroidered birds each sits within the scroll of foliage running across the upper fringe - although purely decorative edging, several distinct types of stitching, gold wire and thread had been used to create each bird.
  • Scores of sequins, each one held in place by a wire coil, play the feathers of each tiny wing.
  • The bird’s long tails are formed using herringbone stitching made of twisted gold thread.
  • Laid gold bullion gives body to the beaks and legs.
  • Scores of pearls embrace the little animals.

Over time, we noticed the piece deteriorating - shades of dark grey and black dominated many areas, which turned out to be tarnished threads of gold; the yellow padding, which was used to give body to the bird’s wings and intended to be invisible, was bursting into view and hundreds of the pearls had been lost. So in 2007, we decided to conserve this exquisite piece.

A tough question

Where does conservation end and restoration begin? This was the question we were faced with before work could begin and after careful thought and much testing, we agreed that:

  • The gold could not be brought back to its original shine
  • We would use a fine silk crèpeline, dyed to a matching grey, to mask the bright yellow padding
  • We would use Swarovski crystal pearls to replace the missing pearls - surprisingly economical

Now the frontal’s legibility to the modern viewer has been hugely enhanced, without compromising its original fabric. Although a specialist conservator would notice the new work, an untrained eye would not.