Conservation of Brasses and Slabs
A prime objective of the Monumental Brass Society is to ensure the better preservation of monumental brasses, indents of lost brasses and incised slabs. The Society provides advice and assistance to churches on the care and preservation of their brasses. It also has a conservation fund, from which grants are provided to churches for conservation work on brasses.
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In addition, click here to view a downloadable short booklet with guidelines to assist parishes.
The following advice is offered to parishes by the MBS (in association with the Church Monuments Society) through the good offices of the Council for Care of Churches and local Diocesan Advisory Committees (D.A.C.s).
Underlying the specific advice below are two essential musts -
If your brasses are in need of attention now or in the future, financial help is readily available. The MBS provides small grants and there are various other charitable bodies which will provide funds for the conservation of brasses, slabs and larger monuments but only if authorised expert conservators are employed; your local D.A.C. Secretary can supply you with details.
Protection From Theft
* If a brass becomes loose, or proud of its slab, it should be reported to the Diocesan Advisory Committee; if any part, however small, is completely loose it should immediately be removed to a safe place.
* Brasses removed from their slab and wall mounted should be secured to a board of chemically-
Protection From Damage
* Brass rubbing does not harm a brass if competently carried out, and the brass is securely fixed. Rubbers should be discouraged from kneeling or resting on brasses while working and should always use kneelers. Sticky tape must not be applied to the brass or its slab, though dry masking tape is permissible. If a brass is frequently rubbed then the church should consider having a replica made for the purpose. The rubbing of brasses that are not securely fixed and firmly supported at the back should be prohibited until they have been attended to by a conservator, since applied pressure causes the metal to flex and may result in cracking or other damage.
* People should be prevented from walking or kneeling directly on brasses and incised slabs. This can be achieved either by roping off the monuments or covering them with a layer of soft chemically-
* Under no circumstances should coconut-
* Brasses and incised slabs should not have candlesticks, vases or furniture placed on them; chair legs can scratch and loosen the brass and damage the stone. Avoid putting floral displays on brasses as spillage causes damp and corrosion.
* Brasses in slabs, on tomb chests or on wall monuments, and also incised slabs will suffer if the monument is affected by damp. Damp is particularly damaging to Purbeck marble and other shelly limestones. Danger signs are: crumbling powdery stone surface, flaking paint, water marks or green stains or salts on the stonework, brown stains on wall monuments or tomb chests, or cracks in the stonework. Slabs affected by damp should, wherever possible, be left uncovered. Expert advice must be sought on how to isolate the monument from the source of the damp, how to repair any damage and make the monument safe. Brass rubbing should be prohibited if the slab is showing signs of damp problems as it may hasten the deterioration.
* Brasses should never be cleaned using metal polishes or other chemical cleaners. These contain abrasives, and/or acids, which can quickly remove the engraving. Usually brasses only require dusting, but if particularly dirty, rub with a soft cloth dipped in paraffin and wipe dry. Any blue or green corrosion should only be removed by a trained conservator.
* Brasses screwed to lime washed walls, or in contact with lime based plaster or cement, are likely to be suffering unseen corrosion on the back; instead have the brass mounted on a board of chemically-
* During interior decoration, monuments, including brasses, should be properly covered to protect them. Also if your church has a colony of (protected) bats the corrosive effects of their droppings on brasses can be severe so brasses and slabs should be covered to prevent damage. English Heritage and English Nature have produced useful guidelines for the identification, assessment and management of bat-
23 Savile Row
The above advice is, of necessity, a brief summary. For expert advice on the care of brasses and slabs please contact your local D.A.C. who can put you in touch with your local consultant, if you have one, or:
Mr. H. Martin Stuchfield F.S.A.
Hon. Conservation Officer, MBS
Suffolk CO10 7SP or e-
This article first appeared in The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings (The Building Conservation Directory Special Report...No 1, Third Edition Summer 1996) and subsequently in the Conservation Special issue of MBS Bulletin (No. 75, June 1997). It is reproduced by the kind agreement of the author, William Lack.
The earliest brasses were laid down in this country in the early 14th century and their popularity as memorials for the landed gentry and wealthy middle classes continued until the mid 17th century. Iconoclasm, greed and carelessness have reduced the original number of brasses to a current total of about 8000. Many of these are to be found in comparatively isolated churches throughout the country with a concentration in the home counties and East Anglia. A brief revival in Victorian times produced a fair number of notable examples and a few brasses have been laid down up to the present day.
The greatest danger facing brasses is theft. Therefore the first priority of the conservator is to ensure that the brasses are secure, either in their original slabs or in an alternative setting.
Every brass was originally set in a stone slab, often of Purbeck marble, which was itself an integral part of the monument. The brass was secured with brass rivets set in lead plugs let into the stone and the plates were bedded on pitch. Over a prolonged period pitch deteriorates and loses its adhesion, rivets spring or pull out of the stone, and the endless pressure of feet causes plates to expand laterally and to bow. As a result, plates work proud of their slabs and become loose and vulnerable. Brasses which have been reset in their slabs in the past using screws or other inappropriate techniques are particularly vulnerable. When set in the floor of a church, corrosion is not usually a problem unless the brass has been re-
The conservator's first task is to clean the plates, taking care not to disturb the existing patina. It is most important that this is done without the use of chemicals. After light washing in distilled water or white spirit, dirt, corrosion and calcareous accretions are carefully scraped off and lifted with a scalpel. New brass rivets are fitted and the brass secured in its original slab with the plates bedded on fresh bituminous mastic with the rivets set in an inert resin grout. This process, which follows the original methods, provides support and secure anchoring for the brass and protection from damp.
On church floors slabs have usually survived remarkably well. However, problems which are encountered include fracturing of the stone and deterioration of the surface, either caused by heavy foot traffic or by environmental conditions where rising damp and migrating salts have caused crumbling of the stone surface, often leaving edges of plates exposed.
Wherever possible, a damaged slab should be conserved by a stone conservator. It may need to be removed from the floor, dried out and the level of soluble salts reduced by expert treatment. Any fractures will need to be pinned with stainless steel dowels and the surface may need to be consolidated. Limestones and calcareous sandstones may be consolidated using limewater but not an impervious chemical, as most proprietary treatments are liable to lead to further deterioration and cannot be reversed. In extreme cases the surface may need to be dressed and new indents cut.
The Victorian fashion for tiling church floors resulted in the loss of many original stone slab floors. Brasses were often removed to the walls where they may now be found nailed or screwed directly to damp, plastered and lime-
Where corrosion has occurred, the brass must be removed from the source of damp and cleaned. If the original slab cannot be reused, or if replacing it in its original position would entail unacceptable risk of further deterioration, a cost-
Victorian plates present unique problems. Many of them were secured with rivets soldered to the reverse and these joints can fail, leaving edges proud of the slab. In such cases it is usually necessary to lift and conserve the whole plate. These brasses were produced with coloured infill in the engraved lines and their surfaces were polished and protected with lacquer. Where the lacquer has broken down, either as a result of polishing or environmental conditions, the brass will need to be cleaned, lightly polished and re-
In the 1960s and 1970s brass rubbing achieved great popularity and many celebrated brasses were rubbed intensively. Brass rubbing was perceived to damage brasses, and a by-
Most damage has been caused by the use of metal polish and by injudicious use of coverings such as coconut matting and carpets with underlay which harbour grit. The practice of laying fitted carpets with rubber underlay prevents floors and slabs from breathing and inevitably causes corrosion to brasses, while any grit caught beneath abrades the surface.
Some medieval brasses were made by reusing older ones, and lifting of brasses for conservation has revealed many unknown 'palimpsests', with the older engravings preserved on the reverse side. After conservation, the reverse will again be concealed so they should be recorded by taking a rubbing or by making a resin facsimile for display elsewhere in the church.
Where brasses have been conserved, the only action necessary to maintain them is to ensure that they are kept regularly swept with a soft brush and protected with regular applications of micro-
During the early years of the Society there was little focused or reported activity of the repair and restoration of brasses. The dissolution of the Society at the onset of war in 1914 precluded any organised encouragement of conservation, but its re-
In 1973 the then President of the MBS, Dr. Cameron, a metallurgist in the University of Cambridge set up a specialised laboratory for the repair of brasses. A separate fund to support this work was established by the MBS, primed by grants and later supported by donations, specific fund-
With the death of Dr. Cameron in 1985 the tangible link of the Society with Cambridge was lost; since then the Society has not been involved in the practical aspects of conservation work. Recognising this the Laboratory/Workshop account was renamed the 'Monumental Brass Society Conservation Fund' from which grants are awarded to churches on application.
The MBS Conservation Fund has limited resources and is usually able to make grants totalling around £600 to £800 each year. The policy is to spread this sum as far as possible, striving to ensure that most, if not all, applications receive a grant, however small. Most individual grants are usually in the range £50 to £200. However, as a primary fund the MBS Conservation Fund frequently opens the door to larger, less publicised resources.
Application for grants from the Conservation Fund must be made on the Society's form and must be supported by an estimate from a recognised brass conservator and submitted to
Mr. H.M. Martin Stuchfield F.S.A.
Hon. Conservation Officer, MBS
Suffolk CO10 7SP
The Conservation Officer will be happy to discuss conservation requirements and requests for grant funding with incumbents or churchwardens before a formal application is made. He can also advise on other possible sources of grant funding.
Grant applications are submitted to the Executive Council of the MBS for consideration at one of their meetings. Four such meetings are held each year, normally in February, June, September and November. The size of the grant awarded usually depends on three factors:
the number of applications received
the total cost of conservation for each application
the parish's own resources and other conservation work the parish is funding.
Grants will not be paid until the conservation work has been completed and must be taken up within two years of the award of the grant. However, if a parish cannot complete the work within the two years and the grant expires, the MBS will be willing to consider a renewed application for grant funding.
Click here for the MBS Conservation Fund grant application form