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The Restoration of the Ark Paintwork

Exeter Synagogue: Polychrome Survey


Following a request by the architect, Mr Stephen Emanuel, several visits were made to the Exeter Synagogue in order to examine the state of the internal features. My own role was to look at the specialist decorative surfaces, whilst Mr Hugh Harrison carried out an inspection of the joinery.

The earliest record of a Jewish presence in Exeter dates to 1181 when the community flourished, with its own synagogue and burial ground. Exeter was the most westerly Jewish community in England before the expulsion of the entire English Jewish community in 1290. It is not until the 18th century that records show the establishment once again of a Jewish community. The present Synagogue dates from this time when, on November 5 1763 Abraham Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs obtained a lease for a 'parcel of ground in the parish of St Mary Arches'.

Since the consecration of the Synagogue in 1764 the community has always been small. Apparently major restoration work was carried out in the 1830's, and close observation of the polychromy would support this. A discussion with Mr Frank Gent (Vice-President of the Exeter Hebrew Congregation), revealed some further information of other previous interventions. Repairs were carried out after some damage was incurred during the Second World War, and again, I believe in the 1980's. It has in the past been necessary to draw upon the practical resources of members of the congregation. However, the building has not received the attention that it deserves; funding has long been a problem, in spite of a caring congregation, resulting in the current crisis.

Although our initial brief had been to examine certain selected features, our inspection revealed larger-scale problems, significantly important to warrant extending our inspection.

Access for the inspection was by ladder and it was not possible to carry out an examination of surfaces above the cornice.


The Ark

The most important feature in the Synagogue is the Ark, which houses the holy Torah scrolls, and as such was the congregation's object of reverence. Set by the wall facing Jerusalem it is the focal point of the synagogue's interior decoration, and of the service itself. Inside the intimate confines of the Exeter Synagogue the Ark is a particularly striking feature. It is in need of major structural work, and this will be discussed in detail in Mr Harrison's report.

The Ark, which I am told came from North Germany (exact provenance unknown), dates from 1763, according to the inscription. It is constructed from wood and richly painted to look as though it were made with exotic marble. The plinth is painted in imitation of a green marble, at present darkened by discoloured varnish, and in places a wash of black overpaint (which seems confined to the top of the plinth and the skirting). The sides and Attic storey at present appear as a yellow ochre/raw sienna (SP?) marble, veined with black and streaked with green.

The paint surface appears for the most part to be in good condition, apart from the central plinth where there is evidence of damp penetration. The brittle paint is lifting and losses have occurred, showing the red earth primer beneath. The varnish here has broken down and appears speckled and bloomy.

Cleaning tests carried out in a variety of locations revealed startling results. The green marbling is extremely fresh and vivid, speckled with white and black/dark green. The yellow marbling is actually a pale buff colour, broken up by veins of a grassy green, with an underlying delicate deep blue streak, and in places what appears to be a crimson lake.

The heavy black veins may be an overpaint, but this is not clear from the cleaning tests. There is no separation layer between the softer colours and the heavy black, but it may have been applied as an after thought. It is possible that this black may tie in with the use of black noted elsewhere (see below).

The green revealed after cleaning was not one recognised as dating from the 18th century, and analysis of one paint sample revealed the green to be a mixture of chrome yellow and prussian blue which indicates that what we see on the Ark today is a 19th century repaint (chrome yellow entered the artist's palette in the 1820's). Further samples have been taken and it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence of earlier colour. However, the present scheme is for the most part in good condition. The colour remains extremely fresh and will clean up to look quite stunning.

I would not advise trying to reveal any earlier scheme, for even if it exists it may be fragmentary. There is in fact much less evidence of 19th than 18th century marbling so the present scheme is, in itself, of interest. No analysis was carried out on the buff marbling, but it is probably part ofthe 1830's redecoration.

Removal of the discoloured varnish from other locations around the Ark revealed the extensive use of a black overpaint (applied when?), beneath which the 19th century scheme survives well. This black is applied thickly, and on carved surfaces such as the capitals, it clogs the fine carved detail. Perhaps it was felt that there was too much gold, for invariably there is gold beneath the black. Thus the capitals are in fact gilded, as are the urns that sit on the cornice.

No tests were carried out on any of the texts.

The supporting columns are gilded, with a discoloured varnish coating on top, and black on the high points.


The doors of the Ark, usually hidden behind curtains, are grained, and though there is evidence of green beneath the graining on the insides of the doors, none was observed on the front. I believe that the doors may have been grained approximately 80 years ago, and this may have entailed the removal of earlier colour. The doors at present are the same colour as the marbling around them; after the varnish has been removed on the marbling these doors will need some attention. For those who may find the clean patches rather startling it must be remembered that the colours were never meant to be seen as muted and dull. It should therefore be a priority to restore the colour of the Ark to its former glory.


The Columns

The next main polychromed feature within the Synagogue is the painted columns, of which there are eight. The columns sit on square plinths which are at present covered in black paint. Out of the eight columns, five still retain what appear to be their original plinths; the other three have more modern replacements.

The paintwork on most of the columns is in good condition. With several layers of colour present there is quite a thickness of paint on the surface, so where damage has occurred some attention is needed, mainly by way of infilling. There are some places where loose paint can be seen, which should receive attention.

The columns are decorated with a painted stencil pattern, presumably from the 1830 restoration. The palette of buff, red, green, black and possibly brown appears to tie in with the colours found on the Ark. There is certainly evidence of an earlier scheme below the present decoration, visible through damaged areas of paint.

The plinths, all painted black at present, bear many layers of paint beneath this top coating. There appears to be a crimson Iying directly below the black which probably ties in with the 19th century scheme, though there is certainly earlier colour still.

The columns are coated with a similar varnish to that found on the Ark, which cleans to reveal fresh bright colours below, with gilded mouldings at both head and base.



The Bimah, the raised platform from where prayers are conducted and the Torah is read, is in theory the most decorated piece in the synagogue next to the Ark. The iron-work with which the Bimah is traditionally surrounded is here currently covered in crudely applied gold paint, which has also been applied to the iron-work around the Ark. The appearance of the ironwork would be hugely improved by its removal.

There are three layers of gold paint, beneath which a green can be seen. The green may tie up with that on the Ark, though it is less bright than the plinth, and more probably reflects the colour on the insides of the doors.

Although it is commonplace to think of metal railings as 'metal-coloured', the tradition of continuing the paint over a variety of surfaces, regardless of materials goes back to the mediaeval times.


Plaster Inscription

In the entrance hall there is a plaster inscription, sited above the door leading into the Synagogue itself. This tablet bears a quote saying face east to Jerusalem. This tablet was overpainted, in what looks like an oil paint, repeating the original inscription which has been exposed beneath. Mr Gent tells me that his father removed most of the flaking overpaint, which was presumably applied in the 1830's refurbishment.

Although in itself a small item the historic significance of this inscription should not be overlooked. The islands of overpaint which still remain are now rather prominent as the saturated oil paint looks rather harsh in association with the more subtle lime-based colours beneath. The original inscription has lost its binder and the painted black lettering needs consolidating if it is to survive.



The items are listed below in order of priority.


The Ark

The Ark, as the focal point in the Synagogue and in itself a remarkable survival, must receive attention if it is to survive into the next century. As well as its symbolic function it is an important historic architectural feature. It represents a time when the present Synagogue f1rst came into being, even though the exposed paint itself is not contemporary.

The structural work, to be discussed in Mr Harrison's report, is of the highest priority. The flaking paint on the plinth will need to be faced up with Eltoline Tissue to hold it in place during dismantling, but apart from this the paint appears to be robust. At some stage it will be necessary to carry out consolidation to re-attach the loose paint to its support.

The cleaning of the Ark polychromy, whilst not of any great urgency, would certainly transform the present dark structure. As it stands the Ark is but a shadow of what it should be, as the imposing centre piece of the Synagogue

The black overpaint, applied lavishly over the gilded capitals, the top surface of the plinth and on mouldings around the columns should, where it has been insensitively used, be removed.


The Columns

The removal of the discoloured varnish from the columns around the Synagogue should also be a priority. Once clean they will echo the polychrome on the Ark and bring colour to the darker recesses of the interior. Loose paint will need consolidating, and small areas of loss on some of the columns will need to be filled, and reintegrated. The black overpaint on the original plinths could also be removed, in which case the replacement plinths would need to be retouched to match the 19th century colour. Finally a protective coat of varnish will need to be applied.



The modern gold paint on the iron-work surrounding both the Ark and the Bimah will eventually discolour from green to black and should be removed. The paint below is more appropriate and will link the two main features in the Synagogue. After cleaning, the paint should be given a protective varnish coat, and if the paint is particularly abraded some reintegration should be carried out.


Plaster Inscription

All remaining traces of the 19th century overpaint should be removed. The black lettering of the original scheme should be consolidated, and the plaque given a gentle surface clean.



The main features within the synagogue have been discussed in some detail above. It is important to see them in the context of a building that is both unique to Exeter and a rarity on a wider scale. The only other historic synagogue in the south-west is Plymouth which has both benefited and suffered from greater attention in its past, and was particularly heavily 'restored' some 20 years ago.

In discussing the history of synagogues in his recent book "And I Shall Dwell Among Them. Historic Synagogues of the World," Neil Folberg (whose only illustrations of English synagogues are of Plymouth and Exeter) states that, "whereas the synagogue's exterior was subjected to outside supervision and restrictions, Jews enjoyed almost total freedom in decorating and furnishing the inside". Exeter Synagogue, with its unobtrusive frontage has over the years become sadly forgotten, particularly by the town planners. The interior remains, in spite of its condition a haven that the visitor is quite unprepared for.

It is encouraging that as Exeter becomes increasingly proud of its heritage, so it is begins to recognise the Synagogue as a valuable resource. As a result, the role of the Synagogue is changing. As well as being a place of worship, it is now attracting a wide audience, of countless educational groups of all ages, as well as at last being put on the 'Leisure and Tourism' map. All of which bodes most positively for the Synagogue's survival in the next century. It is therefore no longer just a question of the survival of a place of worship with its ingrained history, of importance for a minority group. This Synagogue, the building and its contents, at last seem to be gaining the recognition that they deserve. It is of vital importance that those features that are the very essence of the place be preserved for the future.



My thanks to Mrs Sonia Fodor (President of the Exeter Hebrew Congregation), for her tremendous commitment, her patience and help, and to Mr Frank Gent (Vice-President) for his support and information. The historical references have been researched by Rabbi Dr B. Susser in 'The Jews of South West England', published by Exeter University Press.


copyright: Eddie Sinclair

November 1996


(1) The book 'And I Shall Dwell Among Them. Historic Synagogues of the World', by Neil Folberg, published by Aperture (1997).


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