Tag Archives: decorative art

Early modern design in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Hastings studioA few days ago I drove across the Romney Marsh to Hastings, to Melissa White’s textile workshop to meet her for the first time, with Danae Tankard from the Weald and Downland Museum. Melissa is creating a new painted cloth for the hall of the Museum’s most loved property, Bayleaf. We are making a film about the whole project, produced by Darren Mapletoft, as one of the outcomes the AHRC Domestic Interiors network – in the course of it we’ve been discussing the impact of decorative textiles and different ways of presenting them in heritage settings.

Part of Melissa’s work involves making bespoke hand painted replica Elizabethan domestic interiors, for private clients and museums (including at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), and part is more mainstream – she has worked with big furnishings firms such as Zoffany to create modern textile and paper designs inspired by historic interiors.

zoffany verdure

So one of the things I wanted to ask Melissa about was what the difference is between these two processes – where does reproducing an historic interior stop, and designing something modern based around an early modern aesthetic start? Her Zoffany design ‘Verdure’ is based on the painted cloths at Owlpen (and other related ones), but for the commercial pattern she took out the figures, turning it from a narrative sequence about Joseph to a verdant scene of characteristically early modern trees, waterfalls and buildings. The painted cloth that Melissa is producing for the Weald and Downland is based on a wall painting from Althrey Hall in Wrexham that Kathryn Davies discussed at the Network final conference (see more about the conference here). So was she copying this, or designing something based around it?

Melissa talked about the processes she went through. First, she used authentic fabrics and pigments as much as possible. The canvas is sized with rabbit skin glue, the background stripes are of yellow ochre and lamp black and whiting (to make grey), and the rest of the design also includes red ochre, raw umber, and a vermillion substitute for the pomegranate seeds and some of the flowers – the small jewel-like dots of colour which shine out of the canvas and would have been the most expensive paint and therefore a signal of the owner’s wealth.

She began by copying the work of the Elizabethan painters, by imitating the nature of the brushstrokes,  their direction and the way of applying the paint – using every possible piece of evidence that could be gleaned from the original – and replicating slight alterations in the design exactly. This kind of learning by doing meant that Melissa was sensitive to the small changes that the original painters had made as they went along, and the variations that came about in creating a repeating pattern by hand. In other words, she was seeing how the pattern took shape by imitating the practice, rather than the design itself, and after an initial period of replication she could continue in that spirit and make her own changes.

Althrey Hall wallpainting

That led us on to discussing the nature of repetition. She talked about the fact that so many early modern decorative  textiles replicate the nature of woven cloth, in which repeats can be produced mechanically. She sees them as aiming to imitate elite fabrics, particularly in this design the swags and the pomegranates that very expensive imported silks often contain, and we discussed where rural families might have come across such fabrics – perhaps in the vestments and altar cloths of the pre-Reformation parish church might be one place? The close relationship between different decorative works – painted cloths and wall paintings for instance, meant that key deign elements from fabrics could determine the appearance of domestic interiors.

It was fascinating finding out about the practicalities of making, and the insights this gives into the models and processes of sixteenth-century painters working across a range of different media. The workshop was a really inspirational place. The next part of the process will be to see what visual impact the new cloth will have behind the table in Bayleaf, and how it will alter the space. We’ll be filming the installation and the responses of some of the staff and visitors, and trying to analyse the way it works visually in the different lights at different times of day. Knowing how the aesthetic qualities of these cloths worked within the house as a backdrop for particular kinds of activities will help us to understand why people invested in them, and  the role they played in shaping the status of their owner. More soon on the installation, and then a link to the video…

Althrey design reference


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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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Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (1)

I never intended my book Decorating the Godly Household (2010) to serve as a comprehensive account of every single example of biblical imagery in post-Reformation domestic decoration. I embraced the fact that many more examples would inevitably come to light after the book was published – indeed, I hoped my study might raise awareness of the significance of these previously overlooked and under-appreciated fixtures in historic properties and encourage further ‘finds’. But still, the nature and timing of a couple of my subsequent discoveries has been just a little galling. So, this is the first of a couple of posts(cripts) to share these discoveries and my initial thoughts about them, to prolong the life of that previous book project even as I become immersed in the next one…

A forgotten ‘Shakespeare Relic’

As Decorating was in production and just a couple of months before it was published, I happened upon yet another example of what I had identified as a widespread fashion for biblical scenes in fixed surface decoration during the approximate period 1560-1660. The discovery was frustratingly ill-timed; it was only after I had finally stopped looking for further examples that this one –with possibly the most impressive provenance of all– came to light. What I had found was a description of a plasterwork panel dated 1606 in the house in Stratford-upon-Avon known as the Birthplace of William Shakespeare; a property he owned until his death in 1616.

My source was a description in The Illustrated London News of 1847 of the buildings with Shakespeare associations in Stratford. The author described Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street as a dilapidated shell, with “naked walls” to “strike an irrepressible chill upon the imagination”. The kitchen in the rear had “nothing noticeable but the ample chimney nooks of the olden time” yet there is also a tantalising reference to a lost feature:

“A few years since, too, there existed in the northern wall of this room, a mutilated plaister representation, in relievo, of the battle between David and Goliah, originally surrounded by an inscription—

Goliah comes with sword and speare,
And David with a sling:
Although Goliah rage and sweare,
Down David doth him bring.

SAMUEL, XVII. A.D.,1606.”

This description relied on earlier accounts going back to 1795 when Samuel Ireland recorded the panel in his Picturesque views on the upper, or Warwickshire Avon. Ireland describes seeing it in situ: “in a lower room of the public house [the Maidenhead], which is part of the premises wherein Shakespeare was born” and, more specifically, that it was an “ornament over the chimney”. In 1759 it was, he records, “repaired and painted in a variety of colours by the old Mr. Thomas Harte…who assured me the motto then round it had been in the old black letter, and dated 1606”. Ireland was more impressed by the possibility that it was put up “by the Poet himself” than by its artistic quality; he explains:

“although a rude attempt at historic representation, I have yet thought it worth copying, as it has, I believe, passed unnoticed by the multitude of visitors that have been on this spot, or at least has never been made public: and to me it was enough that it held a conspicuous place in the dwelling house of one who is himself the ornament and pride of the island he inhabited.”

Ireland provided an illustration of this plaster panel:

Relic post 1

The panel was subsequently described and illustrated again by Robert Bell Wheler in his Historical and descriptive account of the birthplace of Shakespeare of 1824. The engraving by C.F. Green employs some artistic license in reinstating the motto in black letter in a surround, as described by Ireland:

Relic post 2

By this time the panel had been removed from its original position which Wheler described as “fixed over the fireplace in the south east angle of the front parlour of the Maidenhead” and adds “the chimney of which obtruded into the street, previous to its removal to the eastern side of the room when Mr. Court new fronted that house with brick”. An illustration of the south front of the building published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1769 shows this protruding chimneystack still in place at the east end of the building, so the panel must have decorated the room now presented as John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop:

Relic post 3

The panel was almost certainly removed from the Birthplace by the widow Mary Hornby, tenant and ‘custodian’ of the Birthplace until 1820 when, after a dispute over the rent, she quit the property. Before she left she stripped the building of all original features and put them on display as the ‘Shakespeare Relics’ in another house opposite the Birthplace. This collection of fixtures and furniture served as a tourist attraction in various locations in Stratford for over 70 years until it passed to her nephew, Thomas Hornby, who moved the objects to his house at Kingsthorpe. At this time the ‘Relics’ featured in a couple of newspaper articles and one of these, The Graphic dated 1 April 1893, includes a photograph of the plaster panel:

Relic post 4

Though poor quality, the photograph nevertheless provides a more accurate record of its appearance. The various inscriptions scratched into the surface of the panel are obviously later additions, probably from the time of its first exhibition as a Relic. The detail of the imagery is consistent with the earlier illustrations but one curiosity is the shape of the panel. Ireland and Wheler’s illustrations depict the scene as an oval, while the photograph shows that it was in fact rectangular and cut across at the top left hand corner; this less picturesque form lends support to its authenticity because it suggests how the panel (and the chimneybreast it adorned) abutted the wall and slope of the ceiling on its left side:

Relic post 5

If the date 1606 is to be trusted then the panel was created at a time when the property was owned by William Shakespeare—but was probably installed by his tenant, one Lewis Hiccox, a farmer and inn keeper. Hiccox appears to have extended and remodelled the building to an extent that would be unthinkable under modern tenancy agreements but this sort of structural work was quite usual in early modern England. It was certainly not uncommon for tenants with long leases to embellish their homes with this sort of fixed surface decoration. Biblical texts or imagery in wall painting came into vogue in the later Elizabethan period—an example can still be seen in the White Swan Hotel, just around the corner from Henley Street—but in the first two decades of the seventeenth century there was a new fashion for sculpted imagery in carved wood or plasterwork as a single scene at the centre of a chimneybreast. The most popular subjects were taken from the Old Testament and the story of David and Goliath was depicted in work at several other properties, including in the tympanum of the stunning plasterwork ceiling of the long gallery at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Hiccox’s panel is far more modest in scale but it represents the sort of imagery that would have been found in the houses of the ‘middling sort’ in towns like Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shortly after being photographed, in 1896, the collection of Shakespeare Relics went to auction and was dispersed. Interestingly, the plaster panel attracted the highest price of all the items sold at this auction with a recorded price of £26, although frustratingly the identity of the purchaser is not recorded. This high value suggests that the panel would have been cared for, raising the hope that it might still exist in a collection somewhere. Do you know where? Please comment if you have seen anything similar…


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