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Repairs to the Ark & Seating

REPORT BY HUGH HARRISON ON THE WOOD FURNISHINGS AT THE SYNAGOGUE, EXETER, DEVONSHIRE

 

Preamble

The entire interior of the Synagogue is furnished in plain panelled woodwork, made in softwood and finished with dark graining. The only colour is on the Ark, which is made of wood but marbled in exotic marble, and the pillars supporting the gallely . The Synagogue is not a large building, and with its gallery projecting on three sides and tiered seating beneath, the building has a feeling of intimacy and cohesiveness.

There is no need for me to explain the background to the present proposals, as this has been well described by Eddie Sinclair.

 

Ark

This comprises a panelled area mostly taken up with the doors to the compartmem where the Torah scrolls are stored. Flanking the panelling on each side are pilasters, with free standing fluted columns in front, in the Corinthian style. These support an entablature with urns placed above the columns and an attic with two arched panels inscribed with the Ten Commandments in a frame supported on each side with modest console brackets. The attic panelling is surmounted with a broken scrolled pediment with wide brimmed bowl with burning oil between the scrolls. The pediment is supported on scrolled console brackets on each side, and similar brackcts on the front at each end, over which the cornice projects. The whole stands on a plinth with pedestals beneath the columns.

The panelling is fixed to the walls with holdfasts, but the projecting sections stand on the dais in front of the Ark.

What is interesting is the extent of ventilation built into the Ark. Two brass open/shut circular vents are placed in the plinth, the boxing beneath the attic panel is cut with vent holes along the whole of the front face, and much the most interesting feature is the copper tubes wllicl vent the storage chamber in the Ark out through grills in the top of the main cornice behind the urns.

 

Previous Restorations

There are no obvious signs of previous work, except the plain half panelling in the inner chamber, which stylistically does not match the Ark itself. As this space is contained within the wall, it is quite likely that any earlier panelling decayed. If the present panelling is more modern, perhaps the ventilation was installed at the same time as the panelling.

 

Condition

The condition of the Ark is generally good, but the dais has suffered from damp decay and is sinking on the right side. The right pedestal has sunk to the extent that the whole Ark has pulled away from the wall on the right side and the left column is tipped over to the left. The left pedestal has more-or-less fallen to pieces and so has the centre plinth.

As the columns are laminated and hollow, the pressure on one side of the left column has caused it to fall apart, and it is now held together with jubilee clips top and bottom.

The skirting to the plinth can be lifted out and this reveals the construction of the dais, and the build up of rubble and broken glass within the dais, perhaps from war damage. This accumulation has buried the dais support timbers in damp conditions leading to the decay of some of these timbers.

The racking of the whole structure means that the doors in the Ark do not close properly, and the boarding in the inner chamber is crooked.

The left cornice return to the attic is missing, and the right return is loose. The bottom rail to the left pilaster is also missing.

 

Treatment

Unfortunately at the time tlle Ark was made, woodwork was assemb;ed using glue and nails. lf a structure racks, as in this case, the glue joints break, and the whole construction starts to open up. If support is reintroduced where it was missing, this stability is not transferred to the whole structure but merely to the area directly above the support. As a perfect example of this problem, the prop put in beneath the left column supports the column itse!f, but all the pedestal around it is falling apart.

With this background, I can see no alternative but to carefully dismantle the Ark, dismantle the dais, clear away all the rubble (allow an archaeologist to inspect before starting this operation), to rebuild the dais using treated timber on dampcoursed foundations, and to then rebuild the Ark with all necessary ventilation and moisture barriers between it and the masonry. During this operation the inner chamber can be rebuilt isolated from damp masonry and with as much ventilation as possible.

Treated timber and stainless steel for holdfasts to be used throughout, all components originally glued with animal glue, to be reglued with the same adhesive.

The doors are presently locked with a large modern hasp and padlock, as none of the original door furniture still works. The old thumb bolts still exist in the door as well as the old lock. These should be repaired and made usable again. The chromium plated handles should be taken off and simple turned wood knobs fixed in their place.

 

Seating

The seating is collegiate in form with a single row of two sets of seats on each side facing the Bimah, and behind these, continuous bench seating from either side of the Ark around the north and south walls. There are also enclosed panelled compartments with bench seats on either side of the entrance doors on the west wall. The front seats have panelled backs and panelling below the seats to form enclosed boxes to which access is gained by the hinged seatboards. The panelling is exactly divided with one panel per seat, and each seat is divided from its neighbour by a carved armrest. In an otherwise undecorated interior, the carved arm rests are notable. The front seats have panelled fronts with a hinged bookrest facing each seat which hangs flat when not in use, but can be raised to different angles by a stay on a notched stile.

The rear bench seating is of the simplest construction with "V" jointed, tongue and grooved boarding as the seat back, and 1/2" ply for the seat itself, supported on ply brackets beneath the seat. All this seat work is unfinished and unstained.

 

Previous restorations

There is strong evidence that the front seats are of different dates as the construction and moulds differ on some of the seats, and the armrests differ with some being carved with scroll ends and calved curved supports, the others being merely shaped with turned baluster supports. Whether these changes reflect different stages of construction of the seats, or subsequent alterations or restorations is not clear yet. As work is carried out, more evidence may well come to light revealing a clearer picture of the history of these seats.

The rear seats are obviously very recent, and assorted armrests have been fitted at regular intervals to create individual seats, but these have no reference to the spacing of the bookrests on the back of the front seat backs.

 

Condition

Structurally, the front seats are sound and in satisfactory condition, except the loss of one panel from below the seat on the west block, south side. The fronts are sound but are loose in their fixings to the floor.

The added fixtures to the seats are, in contrast, in poor condition.

Armrests: 8 are loose and have weak joints and damaged carving or tenons.

Hinged seats: 10 are loose, some require repairs to the boards to which the seats are hinged.

Bookrests: 15 are damaged, with missing cleats, loose stays, split panels and weak hinges.

Rear seats Many of the armrests recently fitted have already come off and are now stored in the enclosed compartment to the south of the west door. Several need substantial repair.

Superficially the graining is very worn and chipped. Unfortunately where it is missing the white ground shows through. This is not an attractive pattern of wear, it merely looks tatty.

 

Treatment

 

Front seats

The missing panel should be replaced and grained to match, and all the bookrests, armrests and hinged seats should be repaired. Where joints have gone, the components must be carefully eased apart, the joint cleaned out and repaired and reglued. As the armrests are only held by quite insubstantial tenons, it is important that the tenons are full size and in good condition. Where inappropriate new hinges have been inserted, they should be taken out and exchanged for the correct size and pattern.

 

Seat fronts

These are fixed with iron brackets screwed to the rear faces at each end, where brackets are missing new ones should be made, and where they are loose, they must be refixed by plugging existing screw holes and rescrewing.

 

Rear seats

The present arrangement is both destructive visually and worrying due to the boxing in at the back of the seats, trapping damp air around the base of the wall. The "V" jointed boarding could not be less sympathetic with the panelled surfaces throughout the rest of the interior. The seat construction is poor and weak, and difficult to alter convincingly at modest expense.

I recommend strongly that all this work is discarded, and panelled seating insta!led to match the existing. Further research should be undertaken, and if possible, the pattern of panelling installed should match the spacing of the hookrests on the back of the front seat backs. This will involve making additional armrests, but no doubt the simpler pattern could be followed.

I should not recommend panelling beneath the front of the seat as this will continue the boxing in principle and might lead to decay in the long term. I suggest that panelling is placed at the back of the seat leaving a gap of 15mm at floor level, and another gap of 50mm below the seat. The seat will need supporting, and this should be done on simply shaped brackets, one below each armrest.

The present boarding is spaced some 75mm off the wall, the new panelling should be fitted closer to the wall, but the capping rail should be trimmed with ample ventilation slots in its top edge. On completion of installation, all the woodwork should be grained to match the existing.

I must reinforce my earlier remarks that to try enhancing the existing seating by adding mouldings here and there, and then covering everything with graining, really could be a situation of throwing good money afer bad.

 

West Entrance Doors.

These are in poor condition with damage to the bottom rails, and considerable damage to the surface. It looks as though the doors have been covered with heavy paper and grained to match the seating.

Conservation of the present situation would be extremely expensive, and would quickly be damaged through the wear and tear these doors receive.

My recommendation would be to take down the doors to repair the bottom rails, and at the same time investigate the original construction, which is obscured by paper on the inside face, and thin ply on the lobby side. If there is an earlier state which can be recovered, this should probably be our aim; if the doors are modern and of poor construction, discard them and make a new pair panelled and grained. A provisional sum for this has been inserted.

 

Bimah and Gallery

Both these elements seem in satisfactory condition, so they are not commented on in this report. Two hinged seats in the Bimah which are damaged have been included in my comments and estimates for the seats.

 

ESTIMATE

12th November 1996

The Synagogue.

Exeter

 

1. The Ark

For dismantling, including the dais, for rebuilding the dais and the Ark, all as described

£4,500.00

 

2. Existing seating

For carrying out all repairs, and retouching the graining

£3,500.00

 

3. Rear seats

For taking out all the modern rear seating, designing and making new panelled seating to match the existing, and for installing the new seating and graining to match

£7,500.00

 

4. Interior entrance doors

For taking out, repairing and regraining, allow Provisional Sum

£ 750.00

 

V.A.T. to be added to all estimates

 

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