Legacy of Liberty Preservation Project: Phase 2 Sounding Board Conservation Project

To donate to the Sounding Board Conservation Project contact Sarah Whiting, Executive Director at swhiting@saintjohns.cc or 804-649-0263

St. John’s Church Foundation is raising $16,000 to conserve the original sounding board located inside St. John’s Church, c. 1741. The sounding board hangs above the elevated pulpit and serves as a means to direct the rector’s voice to the parishioners below.

The St. John’s Church sounding board is one of four extant examples associated with original pulpits in Virginia colonial churches. St. John’s Church sounding board stands alone: it is the sole Virginia example bearing an inlaid sunburst surrounding a human face. One of the most striking aspects of the St. John’s sounding board is its extreme rarity as an example of Virginia-made intarsia of the first half of the eighteenth century. Intarsia consists of a design assembled from contrasting segments of wood that is inlaid into a solid substrate.

Due to the architectural evolution of the church’s 275 year history there is evidence of several alterations to the sounding board structure and surface. The pulpit and sounding board have been relocated within the church at least five times. Unfortunately the sounding board has been heavily restored in the past and the sunburst design is obscured by thick layers of yellowed varnish.

As part of the larger Legacy of Liberty Preservation Project: Phase 2, the Foundation hired conservator Carey Howlett to undertake a comprehensive treatment plan to evaluate the sounding board to determine the best course of action for conservation and care. The treatment plan was commissioned by the St. John’s Church Foundation, with a grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchel Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and support from the Garland & Agnes Taylor Gray Foundation.  SB12 SB11

The treatment plan investigated and documented the historic changes to the sounding board and searched for evidence of its likely original appearance. The main focus of the study was the microscopic paint analysis of samples from the materials making up the unusual inlaid sunburst on the hexagonal sounding board panel. The paint analysis gave insight into the likely original appearance of the sounding board panel and will guide future additional research and proposed conservation treatment. The treatment plan was finished in December 2015.SB10

The plan details Howlett’s fascinating discoveries regarding the symbolism behind the human face found on the sounding board. Through his extensive research Howlett was able to take a step closer to uncovering the anonymous creator of the sounding board by making a connection to a spice cabinet belonging to Richard Randolph.

Conservator Carey Howlett examines the board

Randolph was a member of St. John’s Church vestry who served asthe “undertaker” for the building of St. John’s Church during the years 1739-1741. A connection was also made to Peyton Randolph and his ceremonial Freemason chair.  Peyton Randolph was the President of the Second Virginia Convention of March 1775 when Patrick Henry delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech. The Foundation is excited by this tangible connection to Peyton Randolph who was an influential leader during the early years of the Revolution and spent much time at St. John’s during the convention.

Years of layered can only be seen by microscope

SB15 SB14Upon raising the $16,000 needed to undertake the project the conservation will be undertaken through trial treatments which will combine exploratory conservation treatment with additional investigation. Using the results from the trial cleanings and associated analysis, the sounding board will be treated and conserved.

Sounding Board Treatment Plan Discoveries and Outcomes

Other original pulpits in Virginia colonial churches include Christ Church, Lancaster County (ca. 1732-35), Aquia Church, Stafford County (ca. 1754-1757), and Christ Church, Alexandria (1767-1773). Intarsia (a design inlaid into solid wood) is very rare in Virginia architecture and decorative arts of the first half of the eighteenth century, and the anthropomorphic design of the St. John’s sunburst may be unique in Virginia churches. Indeed, the design seems to have much in common with European and British sources from a much earlier time than the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

Howlett uses VMFA lab’s Nikon OV-fluorescence microscope to examine samples

Intarsia distinguishes it from marquetry, which consists of veneers assembled into an ornamental design which is then glued onto a flat surface. Both Intarsia and marquetry were relatively common in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this time both techniques were far less commonly used in Great Britain and nearly absent from the American colonies. Indeed, inlaid ornament was uncommon in American architecture and furniture until the 1780s, when inlaid surfaces in the neoclassical taste became the fashion. The examples were apparently made between the 1730s and the 1750s in eastern and central Virginia. All appear to be related in form and execution, and it is conceivable they all came from the same hand. Because of the rarity of intarsia in British-related colonial American artifacts and the unusual form of some of their design elements, it is also possible that the maker or makers were of European origin.SB2

Another example of Virginia-made intarsia also bears a strong relationship to the St. John’s sounding board. This could be the most intriguing discovery to date. According to family tradition, a small spice chest on stand descended from Richard Randolph to his grandson John Randolph of Roanoke. Richard Randolph was a member of the St. John’s Church vestry who served as undertaker for the building of the church in the years 1739-1741. The chest appears to date from 1735 to 1750, while the stand seems to be of somewhat later construction, perhaps 1770-1780. The chest has elements directly associating it with furniture made in eastern Virginia. Some details are extremely rare to find on an example of pre-1750 Virginia form. The fleur-de-lis fond on the piece is far more common on objects of French origin, leading to speculation about the possible origins of the designer of the starburst on the Randolph spice chest. The alternating forms of dark wavy rays and light-colored straight rays clearly show a relationship between this chest

Spice chest descended in the family of Richard Randolph 1735-1750

and the St. John’s Church sounding board. At the same time, the execution of the spice chest’s starburst appears a bit coarser than that of St. John’s sun: gaps between elements are a bit larger, the wavy rays are somewhat awkwardly attenuated and shaping of the various elements appears to be a bit less precise, suggesting the chest may be the work of second artisan familiar with the church’s sounding board.

The singularity and the unusual nature of the sunburst emanating from a face on the St. John’s Church sounding board is worthy of exploration. Scholars of Virginia architecture and decorative arts understandably look to British sources for influences on formal designs dating from the colonial era: there is no question that Virginia’s elite maintained strong interest in prevailing British fashions. Design books by authors such as James Gibbs, Palladio (British editions), Batty Langley and others were imported into the libraries of the Virginia gentry and served as source books for builders and cabinetmakers. Batty Langley’s pragmatic and detailed drawings were particularly useful for workmen in the Colonial era. The pulpit and sounding board at St. John’s Church, while not taken directly from Langley’s book, nonetheless display the conventional hexagonal form drawn by Langley as well as his convention of a striking sunburst.

                                                             Pulpit and sounding board, Christ Church, Lancaster, VA


How did the face of the sun come to be used on the sounding board at St. John’s Church? Perhaps the answer lies in the adaptation by colonial Virginians of the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century philosophical and scientific movement promoting ideals of reason, tolerance, liberty, and moral and scientific progress. The Enlightenment drew upon ancient classical philosophy as well as the scientific revolution begun in the seventeenth century, and the British manifestation of this Age of Reason remained in concert with Christian Protestant notions of individual will and moral progress. While the philosophy of the Enlightenment is best found in the writings of such luminaries as John Locke, David Hume, and Voltaire, the ideas of the movement were promulgated to a much greater degree in Britain and the American colonies by the fraternal organization of Freemasonry, which was just coming into prominence in Virginia in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

SB5 SB4Detail of right eye – using sapwood                                                                                                         and heartwood walnut and holly or maple            Detail of starburst on                                                                                                                                     Richard Randolph spice                                                                                                                                      chest                                    

Freemasonry drew its symbology from numerous sources, from pagan religion to classical antiquity to sixteenth-century alchemy to deistic Christianity, as the organization saw itself as a source of universal truth. Most British and American freemasons in the eighteenth century saw no conflict between their Masonic membership and their Christian faith, as both were seen as a means for moral edification. Probably nowhere did colonial Virginians encounter the symbol of the sun with a human face more than in the imagery associated with the Masonic lodge, where the Sun, the Moon and the Worshipful                           Master served as the Three Great Lights of the fraternal organization. An excellent example of this symbolism is found on the masonic master’s chair by Williamsburg cabinetmaker Benjamin Bucktrout, a chair probably made in the late 1760s to serve as the ceremonial chair for Peyton Randolph, then the Provincial Grand Master of Virginia Freemasonry and later the first president of the Continental Congress. The sunburst on the master’s chair, although carved and gilt, bears a striking resemblance to the inlay on the St. John’s sounding board, with both showing alternately wavy and straight rays as well as stylized, almost cartoon-like facial features.

SB6The treatment plan details Howlett’s discovery regarding the symbolism behind the human face found on the sounding board. A second fascinating sunburst connection is made with Freemason Peyton Randolph’s ceremonial chair – who was President of the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church.  Both the chair and the board depict similar face images.

Detail: Masonic Master’s chair, Williamsburg, 1769

        Detail: drawing by Albrecht Durer

Whether the maker of the sunburst at St. John’s Church consciously selected the classical symbol of Apollo, borrowed symbology from Freemasonry, or simply chose the design as a somewhat more elaborate example of a conventional sounding board sunburst is unimportant. The true power of a symbol is its ability to evoke multiple layers of meaning. In its context at St. John’s Church, educated parishioners could perhaps recognize classical or masonic                                                                                     allusions, but there is no question that its greatest power lay in its ability to evoke biblical and religious meaning. Its original location adjacent to the chancel on the east-facing wall of St. John’s Church — an orientation toward the rising sun common to all surviving colonial Virginia churches — calls to mind biblical references to the importance of light to all creation. The sunburst’s placement directly above the pulpit — the source for religious instruction in the church — also references the guidance provided by the Word of God, perhaps best described in the King James Version of Psalm 119, verse 105: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Conservation Scope of Work

It is obvious in a visual inspection of the sounding board that the surface was heavily cleaned, probably on two or more occasions. Cleaning probably consisted of solvent removal of coatings as well as mechanical removal (scraping and/or sanding) to take the surface back to bare wood. The surface then received stain in some areas followed by several overall coats of varnish and shellac, probably applied in as many as three campaigns. There is no question that the techniques and materials used for cleaning seriously compromised evidence of the original appearance of the sunburst. Subsequent build-up of stain and multiple layers of clear coatings have muted its appearance even further, making it very difficult to see the design beneath the shadow of the canopy.

However, despite its current condition microscopic paint analysis provided a means to obtain information about an old surface that may not be readily visible to the naked eye. By taking small samples from areas of the surface that may have been inaccessible to the tools and solvents of cleaning — the inside corners of moldings, gaps in the edges of joined material, or simply slight depressions in the surface — it is sometimes possible to gain considerable insight into the maker’s original design intent. Sampling must be judicious, unobtrusive, and carried out with as little intrusion into the historic surface as possible.

Four to six pertinent rectangular areas of the sounding board, approximately 4” x 6”, should be selected for trial cleaning, using the following criteria for selection: a. Each site should offer potential sources for additional sampling (visible residues, splits or separations possibly retaining old material, inside corners). If sample sites appear particularly promising, samples should be taken and examined before cleaning begins.

Locations of sample windowsSB9 SB8

Legacy of Liberty Preservation Project Phase 2 Background

The Foundation recently completed the Legacy of Liberty Preservation Project Phase 2 at a cost of $483,000. Main components of this phase included replacing the leaking roof of the church, painting the church exterior and repairing the church shutters. It was during the roof work phase that the structural engineer hired to examine the roof found the issues with the foundation and the floor joists. This new discovery was not in the budget or scope of work to be completed in Phase 2 and there was no money left from the completion of this phase to be used for the foundation work.



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