Conserving and Restoring Church Hatchments
|Two hatchments hanging on the west wall of the church of St Michael, Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire: one
commemorates Robert Duke, who died in 1749, and the other his son, who died in 1793. The carved arms in
the centre are those of George III.
The churches and chapels of the
United Kingdom are home to countless
symbols of religion, wealth, power and
history. None, however, are quite as distinctive
and yet as little known as the hatchment.
As a record of a church’s past parishioners,
hatchments are as significant as inscribed
plaques or gravestones, but they can also give
a far deeper insight into the history of a parish.
Hatchments are an invaluable resource for
those interested in researching the history of
distinguished local families, both surviving
and extinct, and can provide a first step to
uncovering a dynasty’s history.
However, knowledge slips between the
cracks of old and new generations, and few
contemporary parishioners and church visitors
realise the significance of hatchments or know
which family they represent. For many, the sight
of one of these unusual artefacts hanging in a
church signifies nothing more than an archaic
memento of a long-forgotten benefactor to the
parish. They are often fixed high up where their
detail cannot be fully appreciated, and they are
easily forgotten. Here they are vulnerable to
damp conditions and leaking roofs, and these
once vibrant pictorial chronicles of our history
often deteriorate where they hang, masked
by dirt and discolouration, their paint left to
Hatchments are armorial shields painted
onto a square- or ‘lozenge’-shaped frame.
(In heraldry, the term ‘lozenge’ describes a
diamond or rhomboid; its four sides are all equal
but its angles are not square.) The background
is painted sombrely in black, and occasionally
skulls and crossed bones adorn the frame,
often with skulls painted on the arms itself.
Once granted as a reward for an act of bravery
or distinction, the term hatchment is believed
to be a corruption of the word ‘achievement’.
The tradition of hanging these armorial shields
or escutcheons in churches goes back to the
17th century and its roots extend further back
still to the time when the family of a dead
knight would display his helmet and shield
in the church or family chapel. In those days,
when a nobleman died his heraldic shield
would be carried before the coffin.
From the early 17th century the practice of
creating a funeral banner developed. The arms, helmet and crest of the deceased nobleman
would be painted on rough canvas, hessian or
calico, usually about three to four feet square
and this was sometimes carried during the
funeral procession. Smaller hatchments were
sometimes painted on wood panels.
|An 18th century hatchment in the church of St Luke, Widnes, Lancashire: the left or sinister side is black and
the dexter side is white, indicating that it was the wife who had died, pre-deceasing her husband.
The background to the shield or
‘escutcheon’ was often painted black and white
to indicate whether it was the husband or wife
who had died. If the right or dexter side was
black and the left or sinister side was white,
then it was the nobleman himself who had died
leaving a widow. However, if the sinister side
was black and the dexter side was white, then
it was the wife who had died, pre-deceasing
The hatchment might bear the
family motto but more commonly it spoke of
resurrection in the afterlife, bearing the legend Resurgam (‘I will rise again’).
The painted fabric would be tacked to a
flat wooden frame, usually black, and displayed
outside the family home. Following a suitable
period of mourning, probably lasting up to
12 months, the hatchment would be removed
and hung inside a church with which the family
were likely to have had some connection, either
as parishioners or benefactors.
As the years passed and the family married
out, sold off their property to pay debts, or
simply died out, the origin and ownership of the
hatchments were almost invariably lost. Some
hatchments have been removed and placed
in storage. Others have been disposed of as
symbols of bygone generations that have ceased
to be relevant or meaningful. In spite of this, it
is still sometimes possible to trace a hatchment’s
family connection to living descendants and
quite often the family connection with the area
may not be completely severed but survives
under a variation of the original name.
Along with other paintings, the conservation
and restoration of hatchments has been carried
out at my studio for over 30 years and while
each hatchment is unique, all have presented
As stated, hatchments were usually created
by painting the arms on to rough canvas,
hessian or calico. The artist would normally
prime the canvas before drawing out the design
and then painting over it (although there are
many examples of unprimed hatchments,
too). In normal ‘easel’ painting the picture
would be varnished some six months to a
year after completion, but of course there are
many cases where this was never carried out
on hatchments, leaving the paint unprotected
and often allowing bloom to develop in damp
conditions. The fact that the canvas was simply
tacked to the back of a flat frame and then hung
against what was often a damp wall, created
further problems such as oxidation of the tacks
and rotting and tearing of the canvas.
|An early 18th century hatchment at St Michael the Archangel, Kirklington, N Yorks: the front and rear of the
hatchment before restoration (above) with details (below left) showing the edge of the hatchment pulling away from the
frame and the flaking paint surface).
Apart from the collection of dirt and
the discolouration of any varnish layer, the
canvas support was prone to shrinkage,
exacerbated by damp and variable conditions.
As a canvas shrinks, the dry paint cracks
and there is a danger of flaking. Further
dirt becomes compounded between the
cracks making flaking even more likely.
In many cases the canvas or hessian
support was not made up of one piece but of
one main piece extended by the addition of an
extra canvas section stitched on to achieve the
required size. Over time the two separate pieces
can react differently to atmospheric conditions.
The stitching rots and the join becomes visible
on the paint surface.
Sometimes the hatchment suffers further
damage through inexperienced handling when
repair work or redecoration is carried out
inside the church. Holes, tears, paint drips
and even bird droppings often go unnoticed
until the hatchment is removed from the wall and examined some years later. Nevertheless,
in spite of such neglect, poor conditions and
inexperienced handling, many hatchments
have still managed to survive with surprising
Appropriate conservation and restoration
work to a hatchment only begins after a
thorough examination, which includes tests
of the dirt, varnish, paint, ground layers and
support. A full record of the work is kept,
including photographs, and every stage of the
work is logged in detail.
The first process is to stabilise any flaking,
cracked or loose paint. This might involve applications of a stable adhesive with a small
brush or injections beneath the paint. Dry, loose
dirt from the canvas backing, often including
old plaster or stone dust from the church wall,
can then be removed. At this point, the paint
surface can be gently cleaned, beginning with
the removal of years of compounded dirt.
The removal of a discoloured varnish
layer, where present, is carried out with
a solvent or resin gel formula based
on previous tests to the varnish.
An unvarnished painting, even of some
age, can be highly sensitive to the materials
used in cleaning. It is well understood that
care must always be taken in preparing
formulas for removing dirt or varnish from
the surface of paintings. Even paint surfaces
that have been hardened for many years can
be irreversibly harmed by using the wrong
materials, or even by misusing the right ones.
When the canvas is badly torn at the edges
or is generally dilapidated, the hatchment might
require lining with a new canvas support. If
this is the case, a protective tissue facing is
adhered to the paint surface and the canvas
is unpinned from its flat frame. In order
to consolidate the ground and paint layers
when cracking and flaking has occurred,
the hatchment is impregnated from the
back with a liquid adhesive, usually applied
warm, and a new canvas is adhered over the
old one under gentle vacuum pressure and
on a specially constructed heated table.
The lined hatchment is then fixed to a
newly constructed expandable loom or stretcher
and the protective facing is removed. At this
stage, missing areas of paint and ground
layer from any holes and tears are filled with
specially mixed filler to match, where possible,
the original ground. These new fillings are
then retouched to match the surrounding
paint. For future protection, the hatchment is
then varnished with a non-yellowing resin.
|The Kirklington hatchment lining under vacuum during restoration (top), and (centre and bottom) the front and back of the finished work
Tacking the canvas to the frame, as was
usual in the past, is unsuitable for historic and
fragile material, so a rebate has to be made to accommodate the lined hatchment on its
new stretcher. Attaching battens to the back
of the frame not only allows the fitting of
the new stretcher but also helps strengthen
the frame, which will be expected to carry
the extra weight of canvas and stretcher.
Frames that hang diagonally, as framed
hatchments do, can become weakened at the
corners. New weight to the frame obviously
can exacerbate this. In some cases the frames
are so badly damaged by woodworm and
other environmental effects that they have
to be replaced with a new frame specifically
designed to match the old, although where
possible the original should be conserved.
In general, when a parish has commissioned
a hatchment to be conserved, the building will
already have been repaired and damp or leaking
roofs fixed. However, a protective backing to the
hatchment should still be fitted, since plaster
and dust have a tendency to collect in the lower
edges of the stretcher behind the lined canvas,
eventually creating bulges in the face of the
painting and causing future damage. New wood
blocks should also be fitted at the corners on
the back of the frame in order to ensure a free
flow of air between the hatchment and the wall.
How best to re-fix the hatchment to the
wall is also a consideration. More often than
not, the hatchment will have been hung in the
church from a heavy hook driven in high up on
the wall. With any extra weight, the conserved
hatchment and its frame would require better
support. This has sometimes been achieved by
screwing the corners to the wall but this can
lead to restriction of the wood and possible
warping and splitting at the pinned corners.
It is best to use an angled (90°) supporting
bracket which can be screwed to the wall
allowing the bottom corner of the frame to
slot into and be supported by the V, while the
top corner is held by a wall hook. A chain is
fixed between the top corner of the frame and
the hook so that the hatchment can be angled
to deflect falling dust from the paint surface
and make it easier to view from ground level.
This type of fixing should be considered when
replacing the hatchment on the wall: it will
help to ensure that it is both preserved and
appreciated, hopefully for many years to come.
article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2008
FRANCIS DOWNING was trained in
the conservation of paintings in italy and
established his studio practice in 1976. as well
as conserving fine art he is also involved in
the field of forensic conservation, advising on
and investigating forged and stolen art.
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