A Glorious and Transcendent Place
This article appeared in The Field, April 1998. We are grateful for permission to re-print it here. Susan Moore writes for The Financial Times and other journals on art, history, exhibitions and auctions.
Doctrine and life, colours and light combine to celebrate the glory of God in the restored chapel of Lincoln College. Text by Susan Moore
Poverty is a great preserver of historic buildings. Well-constructed ones, at least. Lincoln College in Oxford could never lay claim to having been magnificently endowed, unlike Merton, New College, All Souls and Magdalen. As with other medieval colleges of modest means, it had to make do for centuries with a makeshift chapel. After it was furnished with a proper chapel in 1629 to 1631, thanks largely to John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, and celebrated at the time as having set new standards of chapel splendour, the college's shortage of funds spared the chapel from the hands of all sorts of destructive improvers and purifiers.
As a result, Lincoln finds itself with possibly the most perfect and best-preserved 17th-century chapel in England. The 1630s was the decade of 'the beauty of holiness'. Bishop Williams, like his High Church rival Archbishop Laud, chancellor of the university, was firmly convinced of the value of an appeal to the senses in worship. Screen, communion table and pulpit were all raised in sweet-smelling cedar, a wood associated with Solomon's Temple and the Virgin Mary (Lincoln is dedicated to the Blessed Mary and All Saints). In 1636 the chaplain to the Earl of Northumberland wrote that the ensemble 'gives such an Odoriferous Smell, that Holy water in the Roman churches does not exceed it'. Moreover, the chapel rejoices in richly coloured glass. It is the only complete set of windows remaining by Abraham van Linge, the finest glass-painter of his generation.
While the chapel's stone structure took the form of Jacobean Gothic, its fittings were state-of-the-art classical. The 'excellent fayre Skreene' even pre-dates Inigo Jones's great classical choir screen for Winchester Cathedral by five years. All of this, plus the work of the 1680s from the handsome heraldic ceiling bearing the coats of arms of the college's principal founders and benefactors to the cedar-wood pews and fruitwood figures survives intact. Nothing but the lighting, heating and organ have been added since John Wesley, elected a fellow in 1726, preached here and his band of 'Methodists' was first identified in Oxford for their commitment to regular - 'methodical' - worship.
In 1991, Lincoln found itself with a chapel interior so fragile that it was forced to confine visitors to the ante-chapel and to a view of the main chapel seen through new glass doors. The original black and white stone floor from the 1630s was found to be slipping away at the edges. It had been laid on just half an inch of lime and then bare earth, with no retaining border or foundations. Much of the woodwork was also sagging, its substructure infested with worm and wet rot. A 15-stoner kneeling forward too fervently in the front pews would have brought the lot crashing to the ground. Up above, the north and south windows were buckling badly and areas of flaking enamel were visible to the naked eye. An urgent programme of conservation was called for. Again, the college coffers proved insufficient.
What followed is a familiar tale of frenetic fund-raising and a less familiar one of scholarly research and responsible conservation. Nothing has been done in Lincoln Chapel without consultation with and support of the acknowledged experts on Oxford's buildings, on stained glass and woodwork, and no conservation or repair work undertaken that is not reversible. Materials and techniques, where possible, replicate the originals. The heroes of the piece proved to be the master craftsmen involved in all the practical decisions of the project. Their contributions combined experience drawn from traditional working practices with imagination, common sense and ingenuity.
Thanks to the generosity of M A R Blake, a member of Lincoln from 1946 to 1950 and his wife Valerie, who agreed before her death two years ago that the chapel's repair would be her memorial, work began on the interior in 1994. A stone in the ante-chapel commemorates their gift: sicut arbor lucem petimus - 'Like a tree we look for the light.'
The approach taken to the repairs reflects the continuity of traditions that characterises Oxford, a city which has kept masons and joiners and the like more or less busy since the Middle Ages. It was, for instance, initially proposed by the architects that the entire chapel floor be lifted and under-floor heating installed. The proposal of Tony Walker of Axtell, Perry & Symm, who has worked on Oxford stone all his life, was different. 'This floor has been here 350 years and has been repaired piecemeal in the past. There are tiles from at least five or six different quarries of different ages,' he mused. 'That is how it was repaired in the past, and that is how we can do it now.'
Only the dangerously cracked and laminated tiles were lifted. These were chiefly of black slate used in some of the earlier repairs and were replaced with tiles made of the Belgian black marble of the originals. Unworn tiles were moved to replace worn ones and any good halves salvaged for inconspicuous sites. A retaining wall was built under the pew-fronts around the edge of the paved area. The tiles needed cleaning too. Sanding had been the architects' proposal as lime 'flowers' if allowed to get too wet. This would have stripped the floor of its warmth and patina of age. College preferred something less invasive. It was cleaned, inch by careful inch, with a solution of almost neat Fairy Liquid.
Symm of Osney, the joiners, fitted Lincoln in between work on the Norman Iffley parish church and the cupola of the Sheldonian. The bizarrely angled cedar and oak pews were lifted to repair their substructure. It was then discovered that a crevasse some 6ft long, 2ft to 3ft deep and 18in wide had opened up under one, probably in the 1660s. Examining the worst of the sections of old wood, the joiner commented: 'Oak, rotten through. What shall we replace it with? Oak again? Concrete? Steel?' When asked what he recommended, the verdict, as he crumbled wood between his fingers, came: 'Well, shoddy work, this. Look, no ventilation, timber laid on earth - no wonder it hasn't lasted. Three hundred years and it's shot to ribbons. Give us some good oak joists and we'll do it properly this time.' Oak it is supported on concrete bearers and protected by a damp proof course and ventilation.
It is probably naive to believe that the restoration will not speak its age to later generations. Think, for instance, of all those carefully researched period restorations of National Trust houses which, 20 years on, seem to scream the date of their 'authentic' recreation. Consensus of opinion on conservation techniques - and the techniques available - change.
By the autumn of 1994 enough money had been raised to consign the first of the south windows to Chapel Studio in Hertfordshire, which assembled the most experienced team of glass craftsmen in the country.
First the glass was dismantled and dirt brushed off. Where lights were badly cracked in key places, they were repaired with invisible resin. The original glass was then strengthened by clear backing glass. The use of backing glass made it possible to think responsibly of replacing colour whose loss seriously affected the balance and integrity of the design. As new colour is applied to the backing glass only, it can be removed without damaging the original. It sounds easy but, as an exasperated glazier put it when trying to explain why an exact match of a blue was proving so elusive: 'Do you realise that in the original glass, the enamel was made to a recipe we no longer have and would have been heated up to four times to temperatures and for lengths of time we no longer know?'
These 'invisible' mends and infills of colour on the backing glass have clarified the paintings' design, and restored a sense of the splendour that made them famous in the 17th century. In the first of the three-light windows of the 12 Apostles, most bruised by the passing of time was the central figure of St Andrew, his cross almost unrecognisable given its patchwork of repair leads and flaking enamel. Disfiguring, too, was the cracked glass furrowing his brow, the spider's web of repair leads crazing the painted glass windows behind him and patching his robe. Restoring blue to the ground behind the putti which flank the (now readable) Latin inscriptions, in particular, has given substance to these previously ethereal creatures.
Under the scrutiny of the restorer, the glass also gave up a long-held secret. Most scholars had attributed the windows to Bernard van Linge, whom Abraham joined in Oxford in the 1620s. Here was proof that they were the work of the more gifted Abraham. High up in a painted cartouche beside St Peter's head is a minute 'AL 1629'.
Two windows have now been repaired and re-installed, and the third is at the York Glaziers' Trust, a workshop set up after the fire at York Minster. Lincoln decided to go there in the wake of demon colour-matcher Lucy Rutherford whose experiments had been so successful at the start of the restoration of the first window, and who moved to York. Three windows secured, there are five more in need of conservation and - crucially - of some Â£30,000 to Â£40,000 apiece. Lincoln has set the deadline for the project's completion at June 2003, the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's birth.
Meanwhile, will the scholars working on the chapel solve any more of its riddles? Is it mere coincidence, for instance, that in the windows both Adam and Christ bear a striking resemblance to Charles I? Does the unusual presence of Mary at the Last Supper reflect Lincoln's dedication to the Blessed Virgin, or Bishop Williams's loyalty to an earthly Queen, Henrietta Maria?
Lincoln College Chapel can be viewed through the glass doors from 2pm to 5pm Monday to Saturday, 11am to 5pm Sunday