16th Century Painted Room

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The Painted Room is at the bottom of Church Lane. We only found it by chance when we saw the billboard outside on our way back from the church. This is one of Ledbury’s oldest buildings, believed to date from the late C15thC. It is now used as council offices.

The building had become very dilapidated and was being restored in the late C20th when workmen stripping off layers of wallpaper and paint uncovered wall paintings. Work stopped and a team of experts were called in from English Heritage. They found what is one of the best examples of Elizabethan domestic paintings in Britain.

In the C16th, the rich used tapestries on their walls, as decoration and also draught excluders. Less wealthy used hessian which could be painted. Others who were unable to afford these, painted their walls instead.

On the ground floor is a panelled room with a notice directing us up the stairs to a small waiting area. No more than 15 people are allowed in the room at a time. We were given a short ten minute talk about the paintings and history of the house.

The painting are a typical Tudor design of interwoven lines representing the paths and hedges of a knot garden, a popular pattern at the time. Between are flowers, fruits and leaves set on a dark blue or black background. There are a series of texts set in rust coloured borders. These have been identified as quotes from a 1549 psalter and the 1557 Bible. They are in sequence, so it is possible to work out what the missing sections are.

The base of the walls is plaster, but may originally have been covered with painted panels. The base of one of the panels can still be seen.

Colours used were all natural pigments, charcoal black, red and yellow ochre, red lead, artificial copper blue, lime white, earth green and raw umber. They were mixed with a glue base made by boiling up hoof, bone and horn, The wattle and daub walls were primed with a thin skim of lime and hair plaster and painted while still wet.

The flowers and fruits were probably chosen for their symbolic meanings. The flowers are either roses (love, beauty, joy) or strawberries (innocence, purity). The fan shaped flowers may be carnations which the Elizabethans called gilly flowers (maternal love, poverty). The deep red flowers with white petals could be daisies (humility) or Tudor roses (unity). The fruits are probably strawberries (perfect righteousness).

The building was originally the Booth Hall which was the administrative centre for the town and the Town Constable lived here. The upper floor room was the courtroom provided by the Constable for use on market days. It was a Low Court dispensing rough and ready justice. Instant punishments included branding, whipping or putting in the stocks. It was referred to as a piepowder court and was in operation until the C19th.

The Town Constable at the time was Richard Skull, who was descended from the minor nobility and married Elizabeth Skynner, from one of the wealthy merchant families. They were both up and coming members of society and trying to emulate their betters, although they couldn’t afford tapestries and had to ‘make do’ with paintings instead.

The downstairs room is lined with wood panelling which the council are not allowed to remove. There is a debate as to whether there are the remains of wall paintings behind it.

Wall paintings are often seen in churches, but there are very few examples of domestic wall paintings. There are also examples at Ellys Manor House  in Lincolnshire.

This was a fascinating and very well worthwhile visit. It is free, but donations are appreciated.

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