Sounding Board Restoration
St. John’s sounding board is one of the last original architectural features in the church, dating to 1741 when St. John’s was built. It hangs above the elevated pulpit and was in place when Patrick Henry delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech inside the church in 1775. With the help of generous donors and Conservator Carey Howlett, the sounding board has been restored to its original appearance. The analysis took months and the findings are as amazing as the beautifully restored piece itself.
We are forever grateful to the following for making this project possible:
Cathy and Tom Thomson
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Garland & Agnes Taylor Gray Foundation
Project timeline: 2015 research; November 2016 - April 2017 removal and restoration
Restored and Reinstalled to reign once more
On Good Friday 2017 the restored sounding board was returned to its home over the pulpit in St. John’s Church where it has lived since it was first installed c. 1741. The purpose of a sounding board is to reflect the rector’s voice down to the parishioners seated below.
St. John’s sounding board is one of four surviving examples associated with its original pulpit in Virginia colonial churches. It is also the sole example bearing an inlaid sunburst surrounding a human face. Lastly it is an extremely rare example of Virginia made intarsia from the first half of the 18th century.
Years of heavy handed restoration attempts left thick layers of yellowed and darkened varnish on the piece — a flashlight was needed to see the sunburst design! Fortunately, our generous donors and a highly skilled conservator have together restored the piece to its original appearance and it graces the pulpit once more in its original glory.
During the research process, conservator Carey Howlett found minute bits of gold material trapped in the pores of the tulip poplar sections of the sounding board. He also detected bits of light-colored paint residue on the yellow pine that is the background of the sunburst image. Howlett ultimately determined that the original background was off-white and that the sun’s rays were gilded tulip poplar alongside clear-finished walnut. The inlaid poplar face was also gilded, darker walnut making detail lines of the eyes and eyebrows, defining the shadows on the face.
Searching for the artist
St. John’s sounding board is an extremely rare example of Virginia-made intarsia of the first half of the 18th century. While intarsia and marquetry were relatively common in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, the techniques were less commonly used in Great Britain and nearly absent from the american colonies.
Intarsia is a form of wood inlaying similar to marquetry. The practice dates before the seventh century. Intarsia consists of a design assembled from contrasting segments of wood that is inlaid into a solid substrate. Intarsia is different from marquetry, which consists of veneers assembled into an ornamental design which is then glued onto a flat surface.
Given its rarity then, it’s exciting that Howlett uncovered three examples of intarsia dating to the period when St. John’s Church was built in 1741. A simpler but similarly executed sunburst found on the sounding board at Christ Church in Lancaster County VA. Another example of Virginia-made intarsia is a small spice chest on a 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. Further research into these artifacts may result in the discovery of a long-forgotten artisan or artisans, possibly of European origin, who contributed to all of these projects.
Searching for Context
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 and the ideas of the movement were promulgated to a great degree by the fraternal organization of Freemasonry, which was just coming into prominence in Virginia in the second quarter of the 18th century. 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 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 in 1774 and the Second Virginia Convention in 1775.
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.
SOUNDING BOARD STUDY AND ANALYSIS REPORT
To read the full report, click the link below.