Removing plaster in an old house and being surprised by what you find is not unusual. But discovering 16th-century paintings of fantastical laughing birds, roaring griffins, and little torsos of men sat on vases, all based on a decoration that Nero had in his Golden Villa is, historians have admitted, jaw-dropping.
The Landmark Trust has announced that it has found one of the most sophisticated schemes of Tudor wall paintings found anywhere in Britain. It is, said its director, Anna Keay, “the discovery of a lifetime”.
The paintings, dating from the Elizabethan period, were discovered on three walls of a room at Calverley Old Hall between Leeds and Bradford.
During a routine restoration investigation, a small section of plaster was removed from the wall of what appeared to be “a very undistinguished little bedroom”, said Landmark Trust historian Caroline Stanford.
Using a torch some colour was tantalisingly glimpsed. “We thought hang on, there might be something more here.”
Subsequent investigation has revealed that the paintings, essentially Tudor wallpaper, are on a scale and of a quality that is almost unheard of. “We were completely gobsmacked to see these,” said Stanford. “You are always alert to the possibility that there might be painted decoration but it is astonishing to find a whole Elizabethan painted chamber in such pristine condition, it is just really exciting.”
The designs can be traced back to the Roman emperor Nero’s Golden Villa, sensationally discovered in the 1480s when a young man was exploring the hills and fell down a hole.
The fantastical designs inside the villa soon became famous and popular in the houses of the educated elite across Italy. The scheme, known as “grotesque work”, came to England in printed books from the Low Countries and Germany.
They were mostly painted on the rooms of houses in the south of England and were often quite crude.
That is not the case with the Calverley discovery. “I haven’t seen, anywhere else, such carefully planned grotesque work,” said Stanford.
“What these wall paintings tell us is that the people who lived at the old hall, the Calverley family, were not country bumpkins. They were highly educated, very cultured and wanted to make their home up-to-date with the latest designs.”
The trust has now launched an appeal to raise £94,000 to conserve the red, white and black paintings.
Calverley Old Hall dates back to the medieval period and is considered among the most at-risk buildings in England. On the outside the building seems unassuming but the actual complex site is “awe-inspiring in scale” said the trust, a conservation charity which rescues at-risk structures, restores them and then lets them out as self-catering holiday accommodation.
Stanford said most Tudor house walls decorated in this way would have been painted or lime washed over. In this case someone, most likely in the 19th century, decided to plaster.
“Thank goodness,” she said. “Someone obviously realised 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. That’s us.”