Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (2)

Another David and Goliath

This is the second update in this series describing further examples of early modern domestic decoration to build on the material and arguments presented in my monograph, Decorating the Godly Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (2010). This post concerns another lost depiction of David and Goliath, which once formed part of a painted scheme in a house on the High Street of Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. The building was demolished in 1938 and it appears that no official attempt was made to record or salvage its remarkable scheme of early seventeenth-century domestic decoration. It is fortunate that E. Clive Rouse, archaeologist and scholar of medieval wall paintings, together with fellow wall painting enthusiast F. W. Reader, was prepared to risk the considerable dangers of working in a derelict building in the process of demolition to record those features and fragments that were still visible. Rouse’s account, published in the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society Journal in 1948, vividly captures the terrible condition of the building along with a palpable sense of frustration at the wanton destruction of the painted imagery, which he clearly felt merited preservation as part of the nation’s heritage. It is beyond belief that following his painstaking efforts in perilous conditions to salvage at least a fraction of the painting, the sections he managed to safeguard were subsequently treated with equal disregard – one panel with an image of the Royal Unicorn on one side was badly broken in the course of its removal and transport by the staff of the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to Rouse, no attempt was made by the V&A to consolidate the scene of Judith and Holofernes on the reverse of this same panel. Two other sections were salvaged; one was still being “stored in a shed somewhere” in 1948, another had been re-installed in a conference centre but was overpainted during the war.

As Brodie Waddel commented in response to my first post in this series, it is frustrating that very little ‘middling’ or ‘popular’ culture from this period has survived and with the few examples that we know about there is often some tangential connection to Shakespeare to ‘justify’ their scholarly and cultural significance. During the housing renovations of the Victorian period and throughout the first half of the twentieth century a vast quantity of domestic fixtures and fittings was destroyed without any notice. Only a few dedicated individuals recognised the intrinsic historical value of Elizabethan and Jacobean decorative art that was widely regarded as crude, awkward and naive in style and execution. This perception conformed to a model of art appreciation that was formalised in the eighteenth century, which praised the ‘great’ achievements of the continental Renaissance and cast the native tradition of English craft as a rather embarrassing poor relation unworthy of the attention or protection of the establishment. There was nothing to stop so much of our artistic heritage ending up in the building skip or – if lucky – museum basements. We therefore owe a great deal to those forward-looking souls who in the early years of the twentieth century risked their reputations and, in this particular case at least, personal safety to record, preserve and promote material that was regarded with such disdain at the time, even by our national art and design museum.

Here is a brief summary of what Rouse was able to record:

The house containing the painted scheme was on the east side of the high street in Chalfont St Peter, forming the street frontage of the quadrangle known as the Barrack Yard, into which a high, covered, timbered gateway led. The two main rooms on the first floor had evidence of a complete scheme of painting, while remains of paintings with different designs suggests there was originally painting in other rooms as well. In the room facing the street and on the street gable, above two late sixteenth or early seventeenth-century four-light windows with moulded wood mullions, was the fragmentary text in blackletter: “When anything thou takest in hand to do / or enterprise first marke well the fynall end/ where of that waye aryse. Feare God.” This appears to be a version of Ecclesiasticus 7. 36. This text was painted upon the centre panel, which was 6 feet by 3 feet. In the triangular spaces of the gable end was a Tudor rose with foliage on the left of the centre panel and on the right a crowned thistle and the initials JR flanking the crown. This whole gable section was purchased by a private individual and Rouse superintended the installation of the paintings at Whan Cross, Chalfont St Giles, then a conference centre and retreat. (I would be glad to know if this painting is still extant at this location).

On the inner gable at the opposite end of the room was “a fine and spirited painting of a unicorn” – its collar and chain identified it as the Royal Unicorn of James I. This panel was bought but subsequently damaged and then over-restored by the V&A.

It was clear to Rouse that not only the gable ends but the whole room on the street front had been decorated – in one panel beside the fireplace there was another painted text in a frame, very fragmentary but apparently from Matthew 37: “But let your communication be Yes, Yea; Nay, Nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”. The entire ceiling of this room was also painted; on the sloping portions were remains of the most elaborate frames containing texts in blackletter, but very fragmentary so that only one could be identified as Ephesians 1: “Be ye therefore followers of God as dear children’.

The room immediately behind this, identified by Rouse as the best bedroom or guest chamber, also had a complete scheme of mural decoration, but it was less well preserved. The walls had a painted representation of strapwork panelling in a great variety of colours. The party wall backing on to the unicorn in the next room was painted with a scene of Judith and Holofernes, which filled the whole space between the panelling and border. This scene was lost when the V&A acquired this section of wall but neglected to preserve the painting on both sides, but Rouse recalled the imagery as “a headless figure, with blood dripping from the neck, the arms sprawled limply out, was lying across a bed with elaborate canopy or draperies, with one figure, and perhaps a second in female attire who seemed to be walking away. The disposition of the figures, and the drapery, with Judith’s maid and the bag ready to receive Holofernes severed head accord well with the description of the scene in Judith xiii.1-10.”

It was on the opposite gable above the window that the scene of David and Goliath was painted. The scene showed David as a small figure brandishing Goliath’s immense sword as he stands over the prostrate giant, about to cut off his head. At the top a piece of the blackletter inscription put the identification beyond doubt: “Goliath the Philistine”. The pairing of these two scenes is conventional and represents the victory of virtue over vice, or the righteous over an oppressor.

david and goliath

As Rouse concludes, “This is a remarkably elaborate scheme of decoration for a comparatively modest house; and its destruction or dispersal is the more to be regretted”. I echo these sentiments and applaud Rouse’s heroic efforts to save what he could. Though ultimately unsuccessful in rescuing the paintings Rouse’s care and professionalism in recording the building – even as it fell in on him – has provided a comprehensive written description to inform a new wave of scholarship which will, I hope, finally give this sort of middling-status visual and material culture the recognition and attention it deserves.

His full account can be accessed here.

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