Stars of Wonder, Stars of Night

Restoring Pugin

Two distinct schemes of stars have been discovered in the Unity Chapel as part of our Restoring Pugin Project.

As we celebrate the Epiphany and the arrival of the Magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the new-born Jesus, we are reminded of the guiding Star of Bethlehem.

The symbolic motif of the star has long been associated with ecclesiastical architecture, a pictorial reference to the skies and heaven above which were recreated across the vaulted ceilings of Gothic chapels and cathedrals during the late medieval period. Returning to these traditions during the late 18th and 19th centuries, English architects led by A. W. N. Pugin looked to recreate the sumptuous decorative schemes seen within these earlier buildings. Pugin used contrasting materials to introduce decorative elements to the exterior elevations of the buildings which he designed, returning to traditional craft techniques to adorn every interior surface with rich colour and pattern.

At St Barnabas’, many of the earliest decorative schemes have now been lost, either removed when new schemes were added, or covered over during successive phases of redecoration. Thanks to generous funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund however, work is now underway to research and record any remaining fragments of the earliest wall paintings within the chapels of the Cathedral’s east end and adjacent ambulatories.

A team of specialist conservators from Cliveden Conservation are first focusing on the elevations of the Unity Chapel, where the meticulous removal of modern paint layers is starting to reveal fragments of the treasures which lie beneath. An initial set of trials undertaken in 2023 allowed the team to develop the methodology and techniques required to carefully remove layers of paint, with each necessitating a different approach. Moving onto the next phase of the project, a more extensive schedule of trials is currently taking place and we look forward to sharing updates over the coming weeks as we discover the earliest phases of decoration.

And so, to the stars. We are excited to share the first pictures of the completed trial areas within the Unity Chapel, where two distinct schemes of decoration have been uncovered on the ceiling. The first featuring a pale blue hue decorated with a range of stencilled stars in differing sizes and shapes, and the second utilising a deeper blue ground with a repeating pattern of golden stars. In low light, the starry sky recreated here would have been spectacular, with each glittering star gilded in metal leaf.

Nicola Collins MA, MSc 

Project Manager, Decorative Arts Section

Cliveden Conservation