Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Colours of history

Long ago in another life I was an editor of illustrated books and many was the discussion I had with my colleagues about the merits and otherwise of the various artists who worked as illustrators. I remember one occasion when we were discussing illustrators of historical subjects and the work of a particular artist came up in the conversation, someone who was known for artwork that was both historically accurate and highly atmospheric – but in which the atmosphere was often pervaded with clouds or stormy weather. ‘Ah,’ said a colleague. ‘It was always raining in the ancient world.’

Even in these days of colour reproduction and the electric glow of the internet, it’s all too easy to think of history before the Renaissance as taking place in a palette of greys under a cloudy sky. Most medieval churches no longer have their wall paintings and stained glass; castles have lost their banners and heraldry; we talk about black-and-white houses and silvery stone; we imagine peasants grubbing around in dingy hovels. This view of the Middle Ages is way off target, of course, as I've noticed before.

We know more about the colour and comfort of the Tudor period, from the surviving great houses. The grandest Elizabethan rooms were heated with big fireplaces and walls hung with thick tapestries. But how were smaller buildings decorated? What options were open to you if you couldn’t afford rich tapestries? A look inside most small Elizabethan houses today and the chances are you’ll find a very simple colour scheme – pale plasterwork and perhaps, if the building is timber-framed, the same ‘black and white’ effect as on the exterior.

But it wasn’t always like this. In Ledbury is the rare survival of a 16th-century colour painted interior. Here the walls were decorated in a pattern that imitates the designs of contemporary tapestries – stylized flowers and fruit within intricate borders resembling the formal hedges of an Elizabethan knot garden. Their splashes of red, blue and gold must have glowed 500 years ago.

In addition there are panels bearing inscriptions, quotations from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, instructing us how to live our lives. ‘Better is a dinner with greene hearbes where love is, then a fat oxe and hatred therewith.'* According to some sources, the presence of these sententious moral comments may relate to the fact that this building might once have been used as a local court – probably a court of ‘pie-powder’, dealing with the running of the town’s market and related matters. I'm not so sure: the sentiments seem more domestic to me.

Whatever their origins, these rare painted walls give us a precious insight into the way provincial buildings could be decorated in the 16th century. At least some people aspired to the kind of colour more readily accessible to the upper classes. And the setting of history was not always black, white, or grey.

*Proverbs 15.17, Geneva Bible. Thanks to the readers who identified the translation.


Anonymous said...

This bibliography might have reference sources of value to you.

columnist said...

Yours is a very interesting point; I too often subscribe to the "black, white & greyer" perception of interiors from the Middle Ages. Interestingly, when the more colourful interpretations of interiors produced by Hollywood appear, I usually long for the more subdued interpretation more often seen in British productions.

Cat said...

Whole books were printed from the 16th century onwards giving lists of suitable 'posies' - literally, bouquets of words - to adorn each room, within a domestic/other setting. In some cases, the posies were actual allegorical flowers/fruits, in others they were words. This probably ties in with the sudden profusion of belongings within each home, leading in turn to the specialised use of smaller rooms, diverging from the medieval hall house interior. If you are interested, I have written a couple of essays for my MA on this subject, and would happily forward the bibliographies to you.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Cat: I'd be really interested in your bibliographies if you can forward them to me via the email link on my 'complete profile' page.

Anonymous said...

Just catching up on your fascinating posts and wondered if you had seen the wall paintings in The Bell Hotel, Thetford. The whole upper part of the wall in one bedoom is covered in a red and black design whilst a fragment remains in another room, this time in blues and greens.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks for that - I've not seen the decoration in Thetford and I'm always interested to hear of new buildings I should visit.