Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Elizabethan wall paintings revealed

The Mail Online has an article about the discovery of six painted images from the late sixteenth century on the wall of a public house at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. 

The pictures are a reminder that certainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the interiors of houses in towns often had colourful and complex painted decoration on their walls. I have posted in the past about examples which survive in Oxford, Abingdon and Tewkesbury, as well as about an enthroned image of King Henry VIII in the former rectory at Milverton in Somerset. I discussed this topic and also with links to other domestic wall paintings in Herefordshire earlier this year in my post English Medieval Wall Paintings

The Hoddesdon examples apparently include a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and of her chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This would suggest that, as with the Somerset painting of King Henry if you wanted to show your loyalty to the reigning monarch you did not need to go to the expense of a panel painting but could get a local jobbing painter to produce a likeness straight on to the plaster. In this instance it was loyalty to the Queen and to her Lord Treasurer, who just happened to own the building, which prompted the creation of the likenesses in the 1580s or 90s. 

The paintings are also a reminder that in a pre-photographic age, and an age before mass popular engravings, people away from London and centres of influence could still know what the monarch or a major political figure looked like. The royal image reached perhaps further than we might think, such as standardised images of medieval kings used as carved label stops in churches, as John Harvey argued. The implication of this discovery is that many such examples were relatively ephemeral if painted on plaster in buildings prone to redecoration and alteration.

The scriptural quotations may be very typical of Elizabethan Protestantism but they also suggest an expectation that most people could read and draw the appropriate conclusion from the link to the person depicted.

The series also shows, as do the other domestic examples I have cited that interiors were more highly decorated than one might realise looking at most restored buildings from the period. Schemes that do survive, even if much faded, do suggest a vitality and skill, as well as subtly that we do not expect, having forgotten that particular tradition.

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