Visitors to historic interiors are accustomed to seeing dingy rooms with dark, oppressive woodwork and walls and ceilings with flaky, mouldering surfaces – possibly the partial remains of wall decoration or a couple of dull and fragile-looking hangings. Although aware that these time-worn interiors cannot accurately reflect their original appearance and quality, it can be hard to shake off an attachment to this familiar aesthetic of the faded and fragmentary.
A sense of the visual impact created by the vibrant colours and repeating patterns of Tudor decoration when new is provided by the recreated parlour at St Nicholas Priory in Exeter. Parts of the dissolved Benedictine Priory were converted to use as a domestic building and in the Elizabethan period it was lived in by a wealthy merchant called William Hurst, who updated the property with fashionable decorations. Plasterwork and remains of a scheme of wall painting of c.1580 can still be seen in the ‘great chamber’ and adjoining room.
The ground-floor parlour was stripped of its panelling in the nineteenth century but the decoration of this room in about 1600 has been recreated using fixtures and fittings salvaged from other Elizabethan town houses in the city. The sixteenth-century oak panelling is from 229 High Street in Exeter but it has been painted, using authentic pigments, to simulate the original appearance of painted panelling at 71 High Street, based on a section of extant panelling on display in the city museum. The honey-coloured replica oak furniture is a far cry from the dark chocolate colour of period pieces and the table carpet is thick and heavy, rather than moth-eaten and brittle. The overall effect is bright, fresh and quite pleasant, with a surprising sense of light and space. Such recreated schemes may appear gaudy to modern taste but serve to challenge our preconceived notions about Tudor aesthetics and the nature of domestic experience in the Elizabethan period. I’m all for it – bring on the psychedelic!