In 2020, we visited Beetham Church where the Nativity scene, with its richly painted figures, was glowing atmospherically in the January darkness. It wasn’t just the visual impact and artistry involved that affected us, but also the story of how it was given to the community by the prisoners who so appreciated the welcome and support they’d been given.
A year later, it was an honour for Hog & Fitch to find ourselves cleaning it. Although there is also a plan for more interventive conservation work, our brief was really just a case of carefully lifting off dust and cobwebs. However, the delicate, almost ephemeral, nature of this object meant this was more challenging than you might think. Hog & Fitch gently removed dirt, accretions, webs and spider droppings, while taking care not to remove the historic surface itself.
One of the trickier tasks was removing the dust, fluff and dirt that had accumulated deep down in the gutter between the textile and the painted hills of the ‘theatrical’ backdrop. Lifting cobwebs and unsightly grey dust from the loosely attached straw on the stable roof without dislodging any was another particularly delicate operation.
It’s always a pleasure to see edges become more crisply defined and colours a little brighter as we work. In these challenging times, there was something particularly poignant about injecting woodworm fluid into a small queue of patient figures. Wrapping the palm trees in acid free tissue genuinely felt like the perfect substitute for a foreign holiday in a year when we’re very unlikely to travel anywhere with real ones!
Conservation cleaning is a small part in any object’s life but it makes you part of its story. We wondered what the men who made it would have thought if they could have seen us. Did they even imagine that it would last this long? It’s been such a privilege to be involved in the story of the Beetham nativity scene and we at Hog & Fitch really appreciated the warm welcome we received from the Church community, despite the constraints of these physically distant times.
Main header image: The crib on display in the church prior to cleaning. Remaining images from top: Cleaning the stable building and painted figures (2 images); detail of webs and dust caught in the straw roof; removing dust and webs from the roof; details of figures and interior (3 images); treating wooden figures for woodworm; removing dust from the 'gutter' in the backdrop; cleaning and wrapping palm trees
All photos by Hog & Fitch, reproduced courtesy of Beetham Church