On a relatively warm summer’s evening a few weeks ago, as the visitors gradually disappeared from the Weald and Downland Museum, we watched the light fading through the massive windows in the hall of Bayleaf Farmhouse over a period of several hours – the best evening of the year. How lighting conditions influence the way we perceive and experience decorated domestic interiors was a key question for our Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior Network, 1500-1700. The museum gave us the opportunity to explore this further and directly thanks to a timely representation project. As Catherine has discussed in a previous post, the museum recently commissioned a new painted cloth from Melissa White, based on a mid 16th century wall painting, for installation in Bayleaf’s hall, which is presented as it might have been around 1540. A grant from the University of Kent’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KIASH) provided support to create a film about the making and viewing of this cloth, including time-lapse photography to capture its changing appearance over the course of a day and night.
We were able to stay at Bayleaf overnight while the time-lapse filming took place and this provided an extraordinary opportunity to witness the cloth in natural and dimming light as well as by candlelight. This also meant treating the building as a place of accommodation rather than as a museum exhibit. We lit a fire in the hearth in the centre of the hall, read prayers to accompany the lighting of candles from Richard Day’s Booke of Christian Prayers (1578) ‘Great and thick darkness overwhelmeth our harts (O Lord,) until thy light do chase it away…’ and slept in the tester and truckle beds in the solar upstairs, with its unglazed, shuttered windows.
So, did time of day and lighting conditions change the way the new cloth looked? And what did our sleepover experience in a timber-framed hall house ‘in the raw’ (that is, without the accretions of subsequent ‘improvements’ and modern day comforts), contribute to our sense of how these buildings facilitated, accommodated, framed and structured early modern patterns of life?
Here are 8 things we found out that we didn’t know before:
1. The cloth appeared to glow by candlelight. No, really! What had seemed strong, vibrant colours in Melissa’s studio appeared more muted in situ, toning with the natural colours of the plaster and timber environment, with its soot-blackened quality. But in candlelight the colours appeared much richer and bolder with an almost fluorescent quality. This makes us wonder – was this sort of decoration meant to make its greatest impact in the evening? What does this indicate about the relationship between decoration and social practices in a domestic context?
2. The glowing appearance of the cloth was particularly striking from outside. It is possible to see therefore how this sort of cloth might have particular impact in an urban setting by night – advertising the quality of the interior to people outside with all this implies about the status and wealth of the owner.
3. The main problem with the open hearth is not smoke, as you might expect, but ash. The open roof was surprisingly efficient in drawing smoke upwards and away from standing and sitting level but a large quantity of ash rained down onto the high table, still laid with its replica tableware. Good job we didn’t have any Tudor recipes to serve. Ash garnish, anyone?
4. Chinks and knots in the floor are particularly noticeable, indeed strikingly obvious, in the evening. A knot in the wooden floorboard of the first-floor chamber of the 17th century Pendean Farmhouse, where we tried out some prayers, was hardly noticeable by day (as pictured above) but appeared to glow when the shutters were closed and the room below had the shutters open, drawing attention to the hole. This made it difficult to resist the urge to peek! No wonder court depositions feature so many accounts of peeping through holes to spy on neighbours, but now we’re aware this may be contingent on lighting conditions too.
5. Sound travels in early modern buildings. We knew this, of course, but there is a real sense of connectedness with people’s movements in other rooms (Darren’s movements filming down in the hall) as well as with outside (the honking of geese). We tried out reading aloud from prayer books and devotional manuals. Voices, even when spoken softly, carry readily and clearly from room to room, upwards and downwards. Eavesdropping must have been quite hard to avoid, especially between upper rooms and the lower ones directly beneath them.
‘ I wil fall on sleep, and take my rest…’
6. The bed furniture was surprisingly comfortable (if too short as we didn’t follow the practice of sleeping propped up). With Catherine in the tester and Tara in the truckle (hmm, seniority evidently came into play with the sleeping arrangements) there was little sense that we were ‘co-sleeping’ – more like sharing a room with twin beds. With such acute awareness of other people elsewhere in the house as well as the sense of connection with outside (see observation 5 above) awareness of another person in the same room seemed less significant, somehow.
7. Shutters to unglazed windows are surprisingly effective at blocking out light (if not sound). The increasing use of glazing and window curtains in the later 16th and 17th centuries must have had a tremendous impact in changing the quality of light at different times of the day.
‘So soone as ye see the day breake, and light appeare in the skie, praie…I wished for daie, and lo, the starres of the twy-light doo appeare; and I see (I thanke thee) the dawning of the daie’ .¹
8. Because the shutters worked so well there was little cognisance of dawn and, after a night of honking geese, we both overslept! This raises the question – how did people wake themselves up in early modern England?
‘Let not my sleepe be unnmeasurable to please excessively the ease of my flesh: but only to suffice the necessity of my nature…’
There is no question that the lived experience of staying overnight at Bayleaf – the sounds, smells, quality of light, the movement of air, the feel of the furniture – has given us a unique and enhanced perspective on how this kind of building behaves under specific conditions. But what added value does this experience offer to inform our research on domestic life in the early modern period? There is a huge methodological challenge here in subjecting this kind of empirical evidence in the present day to critical analysis that could be incorporated within written historical narratives. My colleague, Jonathan Willis, blogger over at the many-headed monster, tells me that he struggles with similar issues in studying early modern music. So, where do we go from here? Back to Bayleaf, perhaps, while also thinking forward to the potential for a study day dedicated to theoretical and practical approaches to experiential and site-specific research in humanities disciplines…
¹ From ‘Christian prayers and meditations’ in Thomas Bentley, Monument of Matrones, 1582, p.367. Other extracts from prayers are from Richard Day, A Booke of Christian Prayers (1578).