Hidden Wall Paintings Discovered In Tudor Mansion With A Dark Past
Repair and restoration work being carried out at Calverley Old Hall in Yorkshire has led to the stunning discovery of an entire room covered in Tudor paintings from floor to ceiling. Explaining just how incredibly rare the discovery is, Dr Anna Keay, who works at the site, wrote in a statement on the Landmark Trust website:
“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 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.”
By “the Virgin Queen” Dr Keay is referring to, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England between 1558 and 1603. She was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor to rule England. It was during her reign that the English Protestant church was established, which would gradually evolve into the Church of England. The break with the Catholic Church and papal authority began in the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII.
A detail of the 16th-century Tudor paintings at Calverley Old Hall recently discovered during restoration work. (Simon Hogben / Landmark Trust)
Calverley Old Hall Was A Tudor Painting Paradise
Calverley Old Hall, situated between Leeds and Bradford, is undergoing major repair and renovation work funded by Landmark Trust that has owned the building since 1981. The oldest part of the building dates to the 12th century when a family called Scot built a small stone hall house at the site, according to West Leeds Dispatch. In the next century, the building became much grander as it was added to, and the family renamed itself Calverley.
It remained in possession of the Calverleys until 1754 when it was sold to the Thornhill family. It was then divided into cottages and by 1862, 11 families lived on the plot. After a major fire in 1977, the Hall was put up for sale and in 1981 was acquired by Landmark Trust, which has since worked at preserving and reviving the historical site. The current renovation will turn it into a 10-person holiday rental site.
Details of a Renaissance Tudor painting on one of the bedroom walls, recently discovered at Calverley Old Hall, Yorkshire. (Simon Hogben / Landmark Trust)
How a Lost Room of Painting Treasures Was Found
Conservationists working at Calverley Old Hall before the start of the restoration work made the find behind a 1930s fireplace while they were removing small patches of Victorian plasterwork to see whether the main joints of the hall's timber structure were still sound. They saw reddish, greenish, and blackish stains on the oak walls which they initially attributed to mold, dirt, and decay. However, on the off chance that it was something more remarkable, they asked conservators at Lincoln Conservation to take a closer look.
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Lincoln Conservation removed the plaster in a further five patches and by then it was clear that they were on to something special, but nobody was quite prepared for the treasure that lay underneath once all the plaster had gone.
“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,” is how Keay described it.
The particular painting style that was used to decorate the room is known as ‘”Grotesque work” and the Calverley find is a very sophisticated surviving example of this painting style. A statement from the Landmark Trust states:
"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 site at Calverley Old Hall under renovation. (John Miller / Landmark Trust)
The Disturbing Past Of Calverley Old Hall
Although built by a well to do family, not all the Calverley history was about high culture and learning. A rather chilling episode that mars this history is the double infanticide of two of the three Calverley children by their father Walter Calverley in 1605.
This was seemingly the result of Walter being forced by his guardian to marry the children’s mother Philippa Brooke, reports the West Leeds Dispatch. He seems to have been a rather weak character who took this “blighting of his hopes” as an excuse to turn to alcoholism and gambling.
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Then, blaming his family for all his ills, he decided to murder them all. Philippa escaped with injuries, but two sons succumbed, while Walter was captured on his way to murdering the third and youngest son who was elsewhere. Refusing to plead guilty or not guilty, Walter was pronounced guilty of contempt of court and was pressed to death between two stone slabs!
A Display of Grandeur or Sanctuary?
What exactly the purpose of the highly decorated Calverley Old Hall room was can only be speculatively answered right now.
Perhaps it was a privy chamber where Sir William Calverley (died 1572), who is considered the most likely person to have commissioned the paintings, entertained only his most special and valued guests.
Then again it may have been a private refuge for Sir William’s second wife Elizabeth Sneyd from her 17 children.
Top image: Calverley Old Hall, where the hidden room of Tudor paintings were found, as it looks today when viewed from the front garden. (John Miller / Landmark Trust)
By Sahir Pandey
Newton, G. 2021. Calverley Old Hall: Historians make 'once in a lifetime' discovery as they find entire lost room of Tudor paintings in Yorkshire medieval hall. Available at: https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/heritage-and-retro/heritage/calverley-old-hall-historians-make-once-in-a-lifetime-discovery-as-they-find-entire-lost-room-of-tudor-paintings-in-yorkshire-medieval-hall-3449288
Stevenson, M. 2020. Mark’s History: The Calverley Old Hall murderer who was crushed to death. Available at: https://westleedsdispatch.com/marks-history-the-calverley-old-hall-murderer-who-was-crushed-to-death/
West Leeds Dispatch. 2021. Heritage Week: Calverley Old Hall – a murderous tale of a local treasure. Available at: https://westleedsdispatch.com/heritage-week-calverley-old-hall-a-murderous-tale-of-a-local-treasure/
West Leeds Dispatch. 2021. ‘At risk’ Calverley Old Hall nets vital repairs grant to protect 16th century wall paintings. Available at: https://westleedsdispatch.com/at-risk-calverley-old-hall-nets-vital-repairs-grant-to-protect-16th-century-wall-paintings/