In 2017, Historic St. John’s Church’s c. 1741 sounding board was restored to its original appearance. St. John’s sounding board hangs above the pulpit and helps direct and reflect the Rector’s voice forward to the parishioners seated below. The two-year restoration project, started in 2015, was led by art conservator Carey Howlett.
As part of the Walter W. Craigie Speaker Series, Howlett will present a talk entitled Science, Secrets, and Symbolism: The Art and Mystery of St. John’s Sounding Board on Wednesday, May 16th at Historic St. John’s Church. A breakfast will start at 8:00 a.m. and the talk will be given from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. This event is free and open to the public.
St. John’s sounding board is one of four surviving examples associated with original pulpits in Virginia colonial churches. 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 base. Unfortunately, the sounding board had been heavily restored in the past and the sunburst design could not be seen under thick layers of yellowed varnish.
Howlett’s started the conservation project by studying the sounding board and creating a comprehensive treatment plan. Howlett’s research uncovered the original appearance of the sounding board. Howlett then used the treatment plan to restore the sounding board to its original appearance.
Howlett used cutting-edge restoration techniques during the project. Howlett also uncovered connections to Richard Randolph, the vestryman in charge of building St. John’s Church from 1739-1741 and to Peyton Randolph, the president of the Second Virginia Convention of March 1775 held inside St. John’s Church and at which Patrick Henry delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech.
Howlett stated that, “The project to restore the St. John’s Church sounding board demonstrates the exciting benefits of current examination and analytical techniques in art conservation. Forensic study of its heavily altered surface revealed wonderful evidence of its original decorative scheme. We are not simply preserving one of the most important historic objects in Virginia: illuminating the sunburst helps to enlighten our understanding of the people and institutions of eighteenth-century Virginia.”
The conservation project was commissioned by St. John’s Church Foundation, with a grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from the Garland & Agnes Taylor Gray Foundation and individual donors.