Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel

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SITTING at the foot of Broughton Street on the Bellevue roundabout there is nothing about Mansfield Place Church that warrants much of a second glance, unless of course you’re interested in 19th century churches built in the Norman style, or a fan of Victorian architect Robert Rowand Anderson.

Yet the interior of this church is one of the city’s hidden gems. Hidden that is, until now.

For after nine years of work and the spending of 5.5 million, the priceless murals painted on its walls by Phoebe Anna Traquair - and which led to the church being christened Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel - have finally gone on public show after more than 50 years of being concealed.

Hosts of trumpeting angels, a multitude of saints, heavenly choirs, gilded haloes and crowns, and of course the image of Jesus Christ, which were painstakingly painted by Traquair onto the walls and archways of the church, are now once again resplendent in all their colourful glory.

And thanks to the restoration of the Grade A-listed building as a whole by the Mansfield Traquair Trust the deterioration from which they have suffered in the past should now be at an end.

Just four years ago a report by Edinburgh City Council said that Mansfield Place Church was "suffering from long-term neglect, vandalism and extensive water damage" while damage to the murals themselves included "disintegration of the paint surface" and panels "damaged extensively by water infiltration".

Now they are back on public view, almost restored to their previous splendour.

"It was very dark, cold and damp inside the church because there has been no heating for over 50 years," explains Rosemary Mann, secretary of the Trust. "Now we have enhanced the visibility by dramatic modern lighting designed by Kevan Shaw and added a special heated floor so that it is warm and dry.

"We have re-slated the roof and leaded all the gutters and pipes so that the church is watertight. And because we have now installed central heating we need to gauge what effect this will have on the building. Therefore we have put special moisture sensors into the stonework under the windows.

"These detectors will give us an early warning to any moisture which might creep in. There are also humidity recorders throughout the building which we check every hour. We want to know the full picture of how our alterations will affect the murals. We have to keep a close eye because they are priceless."

She adds: "The walls, which are at least one metre thick, will take years to dry out because so much water has been coming into the building. The murals, which make the building much more important, could be ruined if the water in the walls is brought to the surface too quickly."

Traquair, a Dublin-born artist who married a Scots scientist and settled in Edinburgh, was commissioned to paint a variety of murals on the walls, to essentially "brighten up" the great plain surfaces of Anderson’s church.

Working for eight years flat out - from 1893 to 1901 - and covering 500 sq metres, she used oils diluted with turpentine to apply her murals to the dry plaster of walls which had also been coated with up to five layers of white zinc. After painting, a clear varnish, covered with a layer of beeswax, was added, giving the murals a glowing effect.

At the time her work was described as early Florentine, but now it is still considered to rank amongst Europe’s finest examples of the "Arts and Crafts" style.

Yet down the years the church fell into disrepair and the murals were left to deteriorate. Then in 1993 the Mansfield Traquair Trust was formed and five years later, with the help of the Dunard Fund, it acquired the church and then embarked on securing around 5.5 million for its restoration.

Funding for the work included a 3.8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, over 800,000 from Historic Scotland and 118,000 from the City of Edinburgh Council.

While still raising the money required, seven years ago acid-free tissue paper was fixed to parts of the murals to prevent further damage, and over the last 18 months the whole building has been covered with scaffolding. Dr Duncan Thomson, chairman of the Trust believes that the restored church is of significant importance on an international scale.

"We have had this building restored inside and outside. It is rather like the Sistine Chapel in architecture and that one person did all the murals. There has been a tremendous effort put into this project and we are all delighted with the results.

"We have dug out and replaced a lot of the stonework on the outside as well as all the work inside, which with the combination of the murals, makes this the most significant building of its kind in Britain."

The 19th century building, formerly the Catholic Apostolic Church, was designed by Scotland’s leading Victorian architect Robert Rowand Anderson who also built the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall, the Edinburgh Medical School and the Glasgow Central Station Hotel.

Now fully restored the building - which housed the Fringe venue Cafe Graffiti until 2000 - has been converted into two levels to make way for charity offices.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has a 21-year lease on the now renamed Mansfield Traquair Centre and is responsible for the upkeep of the building which will house 60 of its staff.

Martin Sime, chief executive of SCVO, says: "We are looking forward to the move, which will provide us with office space from which to expand our work on behalf of Scotland’s voluntary sector.

"Moving to the Mansfield Traquair Centre represents a new era for SCVO and comes at a time of exciting development for both the organisation and the sector."

Colin McLean, Heritage Lottery Fund Manager for Scotland, which donated 3.8m towards the project, adds: "Being able to save Scotland’s threatened architecture by bringing it back to life for modern-day use is something the Heritage Lottery Fund is always keen to support.

"This important landmark, which houses the ‘jewels’ of the outstanding Traquair murals, now has a future. Its special place in Scotland’s artistic and cultural heritage will, without doubt, be appreciated and enjoyed by staff, visitors and tourists for many years to come."

l The Mansfield Traquair Centre will be open during the Edinburgh Festival for guided tours at 10.30am and 11.30am from Monday to Saturday, and after the Festival every second Sunday between 2pm and 5pm.