Removing plaster from an old house and being surprised by what you find is not uncommon. But discovering 16th-century paintings of fantastic laughing birds, roaring griffins and small torsos of men perched on vases, all based on a decoration Nero had in his Golden Villa, historians have admitted, is breathtaking.
The Landmark Trust has announced that it has identified one of the most advanced schemes of Tudor murals to be found anywhere in Britain. It is, said the director, Anna Keay, “the discovery of a lifetime”.
The paintings, dating to the Elizabethan period, were discovered on three walls of a room in Calverley Old Hall between Leeds and Bradford.
During a routine restoration survey, a small patch of plaster was removed from the wall of what appeared to be “a very nondescript small bedroom,” said Landmark Trust historian Caroline Stanford.
With the help of a torch, a seductive glimpse of a color was captured. “We thought wait a minute, maybe there’s something else here.”
Closer examination has revealed that the paintings, essentially Tudor wallpaper, are on a scale and quality that is almost unheard of. “We were stunned when we saw this one,” Stanford said. “You’re always alert to the possibility that there might be painted decorations, but it’s amazing to find an entire Elizabethan painted room in such pristine condition. It’s just really exciting.”
The designs can be traced back to Roman Emperor Nero’s Golden Villa, which was sensationally discovered in the 1480s when a young man was exploring the hills and fell into a hole.
The fantastic designs in the villa soon became famous and popular in the homes of the educated elite all over Italy. The plan, known as “grotesque work”, came to England in printed books from the Low Countries and Germany.
They were usually painted on the rooms of houses in the south of England and were often quite primitive.
That is not the case with Calverley’s discovery. “I’ve never seen such carefully planned grotesque work anywhere else,” Stanford said.
“What these murals tell us is that the people who lived in the old hall, the Calverley family, were not country bumpkins. They were highly educated, highly cultured and wanted to update their homes with the latest designs.”
The trust has now launched an appeal to raise £94,000 towards the preservation of the red, white and black paintings.
Calverley Old Hall dates back to medieval times and is considered one of the riskiest buildings in England. From the outside, the building appears modest, but the actual complex site is “awesome in size,” said the trust, a conservation charity that rescues, restores, and then rents out high-risk structures as self-contained vacation accommodation.
Stanford said most Tudor house walls decorated in this way would have been painted or flooded with lime. In this case, someone, most likely in the 19th century, decided to plaster.
“Thank God,” she said. “Someone clearly realized that the paintings were wondrous and beautiful things and deserved to be treated with care and maybe one day someone would come and find them again. That’s us.”