Jane Spooner - Curator of Historic Buildings at the Tower of London

Interview by Sally Kindberg for Cityguide Magazine

Jane Spooner is Curator of Historic Buildings at the Tower of London. We met at her office in the 18th century Casemates, built against the curtain wall of the outer ward, site of the Royal Mint until it moved in the early 19th century, and now home to some of the Yeoman Warders and their families as well as housing Jane’s office.

Jane’s background includes studying art history, conservation, heritage and interpretation. She was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and as a child was fascinated by historical novels about people and places. She studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art, worked as a building fabric and artworks advisor to the Church of England, and specialised in the conservation of wall paintings.

Jane describes her role as curator as ‘working behind the scenes’.
“We have over 1000 years of history at the Tower,” she says, “and sometimes it can seem impenetrable. My role is finding out about the different layers and communicating them, as well as ensuring they’re preserved and used. We make discoveries all the time.”

As well as looking at archival evidence to see what’s happened to the Tower over the years, and taking archaeological discoveries on board, she’s used to working outside on scaffolding (“Not good on cold mornings!”). William I’s White Tower has been covered in the stuff recently as its stonework is examined and conserved. The last time this happened was in the 1960s when it was subjected to some heavy-handed abrasion cleaning. For years before this the White Tower looked very much a Black Tower due to sooty pollution. Jane tells me that tiny fragments of its original whitewash (probably a type of limewash), used to enhance the Tower’s already formidable appearance until the 17th century, have been discovered this time round.

The Tower of London is constantly in a state of change as new secrets are revealed during conservation and restoration projects. Jane is currently working on what she descibes enthusiastically as ‘buried treasure’.

In the 1950s during renovations, workman in Edward I’s Byward Tower made an exciting discovery … a huge ceiling beam decorated with lions, lilies and parakeets. Further investigation revealed wall paintings from the medieval and Tudor periods. Half a century after their discovery these fantastic finds are now being carefully monitored and preserved.

Delicate figures, using gold leaf and expensive pigments, of the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist, and St Michael the Archangel have been painted on a background of green and gold. The central section of the painting is lost. In the 16th century, a chimneybreast with a red and white Tudor rose decoration was inserted. No one knows exactly what the room was used
for … wall paintings of this type are usually seen in a religious, not a secular setting.
“This is a slow-rolling project, it’ll probably last 5 years,” Jane told me. “It’s the most precious interior we’ve got at the Tower … the most important example of Gothic painting in England.”

Due to conservation and accessibility issues (the paintings are on the first floor up a narrow staircase), and the fact that a Yeoman Warder and his family live above it, this room will probably never be open to the general public. But Jane will, on request, take specialist groups (of up to 15 people) to see this fragile, hidden treasure.

I’d asked Jane earlier what she’d wanted to be when she was a little girl, and she’d told me she’d dreamed of being a princess. She hasn’t yet achieved that ambition, but she does get to spend an awful lot of time in a tower …

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