Well-Preserved Tudor Wall Paintings Discovered Beneath Plaster at Medieval Manor

Carbon dating of the artworks’ timber frame suggests they date to between the 1540s and 1580s

Fanciful Figures
Birds with teeth, little men in triangular hats and other fanciful figures appear in the Tudor wall paintings. Tom Burrows / Landmark Trust

Restorers at Calverley Old Hall, a medieval manor in Yorkshire, England, recently turned their attention to a “very undistinguished little bedroom,” reports Mark Brown for the Guardian.

Peeling away the room’s 19th-century plaster, they were “gobsmacked” by what they spotted hidden below: Tudor wall paintings, likely dated to the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), on a scale rarely found in England today.

The find is “the discovery of a lifetime,” Anna Keay, director of the Landmark Trust, which is restoring the building, tells the Guardian.

Floor to Ceiling
Restorers discovered floor-to-ceiling paintings behind plaster in a bedroom at the Calverley Old Hall in Yorkshire. Tom Burrows / Landmark Trust

“Never in my own 27 years of working in historic buildings have I ever witnessed a discovery like this,” writes Keay in a blog post. “Hidden paneling, yes, little snatches of decorative painting, once or twice. But an entire painted chamber absolutely lost to memory, a time machine to the age of the Reformation and the Virgin Queen, never.”

Experts are now working to preserve the floor-to-ceiling paintings (essentially Tudor wallpaper), which feature mythical creatures and climbing vines in red, white and black. Painted in the exaggerated grotesque style, the artwork is patterned after designs—inspired by the Golden House of Roman Emperor Nero—that became popular in England during the 16th century.

“[W]e are transported from a dusty, dilapidated building into the rich and cultured world of the Elizabethan Calverleys, a well-educated family keen to display their learning and wealth by demonstrating their appreciation of Renaissance culture,” writes Landmark historian Caroline Stanford in a separate blog post. “The Calverley paintings are very carefully planned, in a vertical design that uses the timber studwork as a framework.”

The paintings are based on designs found in the Golden House of Roman Emperor Nero. Tom Burrows / Landmark Trust

Depicting swirls, teethed birds, little men in triangular hats and other fanciful figures, the wall paintings were hidden behind a studded wall covered in plaster. Stanford posits that the historic estate’s 19th-century owners were trying to protect the Tudor artwork.

“Someone obviously realized that the paintings were things of wonder and beauty and deserved to be treated carefully and maybe one day somebody would come along and find them again,” she tells the Guardian. “That’s us.”

Exactly when the wall paintings were completed is unclear, but Grace Newman of the Yorkshire Post reports that timber dating of the artworks’ frame offered a likely range of between the 1540s and 1580s. (The earlier end of this estimate falls under the reigns of Henry VIII, who died in 1547; Edward VI, who died in 1553; and Mary I, who died in 1558.) Landmark preservationists are now evaluating the paintings to determine how best to care for them.

Great Hall
The great hall of the medieval manor Tom Burrows / Landmark Trust

“Lots of complex questions have now arisen. When exactly they were painted, ... how best to preserve them, how to furnish and service a room with such spectacular surviving decoration,” notes Keay in the blog post. “But their importance cannot be doubted. With them a slice of the lives of our ancestors has been restored to us, and nothing comes close to that.”

The Landmark Trust acquired the manor in 1981 and has been actively involved in restoration of the site. To properly conserve the wall paintings, the charity has issued a public appeal for more than $125,000, reports Mark Stanford for the Telegraph & Argus.

An extraordinary discovery at Calverley Old Hall.

Located about 200 miles north of London in West Yorkshire, Calverley Old Hall traces its origins to the 12th century, when the Scot family—later known as the Calverleys—built a small stone house at the site. According to Landmark’s website, the team found the wall paintings in a parlor block constructed in the 1520s by Walter Calverley, who was knighted by Henry VIII.

Per its website, Landmark “rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost” and makes them available as vacation rentals. The nonprofit owns 200 homes in Britain and Italy.

“At a stroke,” adds the charity,” these paintings raise our perception of Calverley Old Hall from its currently crumbling state to its civilized existence at the height of the English Renaissance.”

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