The earliest known attempt to restore the West Front was carried out in 1664.
This was followed by two in the 19th century and two in the early part of the 20th century. Restorations tended to occur after a piece of stone of significant size had fallen from the façade. The danger to unsuspecting passers by acted as a trigger.
By the early 1970s there was real concern that the stonework was crumbling fast. Comparison with early photographs showed how much detail had been lost through the effects of air pollution and corrosion from wind and rain.
In November 1969, part of the drapery of the southernmost apostle fell dramatically to the ground, breaking a stringcourse and falling close to the main door. It was evident again that something had to be done. The restoration work took place between 1974 and 1986 but before that, the master mason, Bert Wheeler, aware of the rapid decline in the quality of the stone, had carried out several experiments in how to clean and conserve the whole façade. Resulting from these and with much expert advice, pioneering techniques were used, now adopted as standard practice.
The use of first water, then lime washing very gently administered did least damage to the stone, all of which was considerably blackened through time. Carefully colour matched mortar was used to effect repairs and finally a very thin skim of fine weak mortar was applied like paint. This is known as shelter coating. It is this that would subsequently be attacked by the weather and atmospheric pollutants and not the sculptures themselves.
The length of the restoration period gave the opportunity to study the pictorial aspect of the West Front, both its meaning and the way the sculptures were worked and fixed. The large figures, for example were all sculpted using two blocks of stone bound together by an iron dowel and mortar. Unfortunately the iron had rusted through penetrating moisture and burst apart, in several cases causing large lumps of stone to be broken up.
Kinder methods to repair broken statues were used, mainly mortar based. Through the cleaning process, one of the greatest revelations was how much paint was still intact both on the statues and their background. With careful recording and with ’virtual’ reconstruction it became possible to imagine a fully coloured West Front telling its own dramatic story.