The Adoration of the Magi tableau in front of Rye Town Hall is now restored and on view, and will be illuminated next week.
25 years ago, John Ryan gave his home town of Rye a Christmas present – a hand-painted, three dimensional, 10ft x 8ft reproduction of The Adoration of the Magi, an altarpiece triptych by Gentile da Fabriano (1423). This article gives an up-to-date account.
The whole project in 1996, was, in John’s words, a ‘civicumenical’ achievement involving teams of enthusiastic helpers. Frank Jenks sawed the wood and constructed the parts to John’s specifications; The rector of St Mary’s gave John space to paint in the church’s lofty and well-lit vestry; Churches Together paid for all material expenses; Rye Town Council provided the perfect setting in the town hall’s Buttermarket arch, sorted out the lighting-by-night, and stowed the tableau away in its attics between displays. Installed annually on site by Paul Carey, the classic scene was there to be enjoyed by all, from December’s advent through to January’s epiphany: Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, three adoring kings, the mixed crowd of servants and onlookers, the Ryan family’s dog Griff, and Captain Pugwash peeping out above the donkey.
Over the next eight years the painted ensemble became the worse for wear. John’s widow Priscilla assembled a restoration team in 2012 – herself, John Izod, June Woolley of Rye Pottery, and Jon Laurie – who, working in Freda Gardham school, carefully restored the tableau to its former glory. The tableau was kindly stored by Jonathan Dellar of Concepts, who also helped with the annual installation.
Another eight years of Rye’s winter weather and the three king’s rich garments were battered and scuffed; with unsightly paint loss, tarnished gold, warping, scratches, dents and tears – the tableau needed an enduring restoration.
Covid effectively defeated 2020’s repair plans. In July 2021, Mike Stott – local artist and retired architect – led a small dedicated team of volunteers: Judy Wall, June Woolley (and eventually myself). June had 48 years’ experience as painter at Rye Pottery, and all three have been long-term Rye Players’ set painters. Interestingly, John Ryan painted their panto sets in the 1990s! Retracing designs, sensitive mending and matching paint colours, sawing out new parts, replacing sections, strengthening braces, hinges and battens – plus four coats of varnish throughout totalled 400 hours of work! Rye Town Council has given encouraging and liberal support throughout, providing new lighting next week, and contracting Bournes Moves on very generous community rates to install, de-install, crate up and store John Ryan’s gift to the town safely.
Image Credits: Isabel Ryan .