In Yorkshire, Historians Find ‘Lost Chamber’ of 15th-Century Wall Paintings During the Restoration of a Medieval Manor House
Calverley Old Hall, between Leeds and Bradford, is currently subject to a major repair and renovation programme funded by the Landmark Trust, who have owned the building and run part of it as a holiday let since 1981.
The oldest parts of the hall date back to the 14th century but most of it is Tudor. It was the seat of the Calverley family for centuries until the 1750s, when they sold the estate and moved to Esholt Hall. Calverley Old Hall was then subdivided into cottages.
Ahead of the current restoration work, historians and conservation specialists were able to examine the fabric of the building and made an incredible discovery behind a 1930s fireplace. …
Dr Anna Keay, who worked at the site, said: “An exposed area of timber seemed to have something on it; reddish, greenish, and blackish stains on the oak. We thought they could just be the streaks and smudges of mould and dirt and decay. It looked to be wishful thinking that this was anything of note. But just on the off chance, ever cautious, we decided to ask the conservators at Lincoln Conservation to have a look. …
Two days were allocated… to remove the later plaster altogether and see how much remained beneath. I stopped in on the morning of day two, expecting them to have only just begun. When I walked up the stairs into the room I was simply overcome. The plaster had gone and there on all three walls before me was a revelation. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, a complete, highly decorated Tudor chamber, stripped with black and red and white and ochre. Mythical creatures and twining vines, classical columns and roaring griffins.
“Wall paintings were prized in grand Tudor houses, and from time to time patches of them are revealed. But never in my own 27 years of working in historic buildings have I ever witnessed a discovery like this. Hidden panelling, 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. …
“Suddenly, we 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. The Calverley paintings are very carefully planned, in a vertical design that uses the timber studwork as a framework. Teethed birds laugh in profile; the torsos of little men in triangular hats sit on vases or balustrades. When the fantastical figures and architectural elements are incorporated into dense vertical stacks as at Calverley Old hall, they’re known as ‘candelabra.’
“The whole chamber was probably originally covered in the scheme, a rich, dark, private space that must have been all the more impressive by candlelight.”
The hall was witness to dreadful violence in April 1605, when Walter Calverley murdered two of his sons, William and Walter, after drinking heavily. He was tried in York for murder, but refused to plead and was therefore pressed to death. Because of his refusal, his property could not be seized by the state, and passed to his surviving baby son. The murder inspired the Jacobean play A Yorkshire Tragedy, the authorship of which was attributed to William Shakespeare in the first printed edition (1608) but which is now thought to have been written by Thomas Middleton.