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Title: Secular wall painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
Author: Baird, Kathryn
ISNI:       0000 0000 4987 3460
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2003
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Wall paintings survive in many houses dating from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries yet, apart from recording the phenomenon, there has been very little written about them. This research explores how common wall paintings were, what sort of houses had them, when they were painted and most importantly, what was their significance in terms of what they can reveal about the lives of the people who chose to decorate their homes in this manner. Research has concentrated on the Welsh Marches although examples from elsewhere have been referred to. The research hypotheses are:
  • 1. Wall paintings were much more widespread than existing records suggest and were probably universal where there was money to spend on embellishing a house.
  • 2. Following on from this, wall paintings would have been found in houses throughout the social scale, apart from the humblest dwellings.
  • 3. The paintings were executed by itinerant painters who used pattern books as a source of design.
  • 4. This form of decoration was most commonly found in the period 1550-1625, with few paintings prior to this date and a rapid decline in numbers after this period.
  • 5. In some cases there is a connection between the content of the painting and the function of the room.
The fifth hypothesis was widened during the course of the research to examine the significance of wall paintings generally. In trying to find out what wall paintings signified to the owners of houses, this research has attempted to look at all the facets of their life and environment which may have a bearing on this. This includes an understanding of the buildings themselves, exploring who the people were who might have lived in them and placing these people in their social and cultural contexts. Always the emphasis has been on the small and local rather than on the bigger picture. as this is what touched people at the vernacular level most closely. In order to do this, the research has adopted a wide-ranging and multidisciplinary approach which cuts across traditional fields of knowledge. Therefore, the study combines library and documentary-based evidence with extensive fieldwork, in order to investigate diverse kinds of evidence. This includes research on the wall paintings themselves, the buildings in which they were found and the social, religious and cultural circumstances in which they were created. The research synthesises a wide range of methods for gathering and interpreting data: study and analysis of contemporary literature and documents, the study of a wide range of published and unpublished research, and a substantial fieldwork survey. First the context in which wall paintings were created is explored, in terms of physical environment, cultural and social characteristics of the period, and the church. Then the key findings arising from the fieldwork are discussed, looking at the sorts of houses that have wall paintings, the people who lived in them, and in detail at the characteristics of the paintings found. 233 wall paintings were recorded in 188 buildings. The hypotheses about universality and status are explored by investigating the vernacular qualities of wall painting in terms of materials and techniques required, who was doing the paintings, and their cost. Through the identification of a range of iconography, and the classification of paintings, possible sources for wall painting designs are explored. Finally the key issue of the significance of painted decoration at the vernacular level is discussed drawing on the various strands of the research in order to understand why particular forms of decoration might have been chosen, and what social and cultural meanings they may have had. The findings of the research indicate that wall paintings were very widespread. They were found throughout the area of study in houses of all but the very poor. Whilst the majority of paintings surveyed were in houses of the gentry or better-off members of society it is argued that this reflects the differential rate of survival of vernacular buildings. A technical analysis of wall paintings and an assessment of their total cost reveals the vernacular qualities of the wall paintings. This also suggests that wall paintings were only ever intended as short term decoration as some of the pigments used were very fugitive. Further evidence for this has been found in the practice of overpainting one scheme with another within a short period, which was revealed through microscopic analysis of paint samples. The contemporary aesthetic included striking yet crude designs which were capable of being executed by local craftsmen. These findings indicate that wall paintings could have been extensive lower down the social scale. Whilst painted decoration throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was examined, it is submitted that the majority of paintings were executed during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries - a period of considerable change during the transition from a medieval to an early modern society. The paintings dating from this period have a character quite distinct from the limited number found earlier and later than this period. The significance of wall paintings is closely bound up with issues of status. This period of transition was characterised by outward expressions of status by means of display in a variety of forms. It is argued in this research that wall paintings were an element of such display. Iconography included decorative as well as figure subjects and it is this that holds the key to the significance of the paintings. The higher status houses had the more complex figurative and ornamental schemes whilst, for the most part, the humbler houses had simpler ornamental schemes. Also the simpler, decorative schemes seem to have been more common in halls whilst more sophisticated paintings appear to have been in the more private rooms of the house. The iconography and the context of the wall paintings can provide an important insight into some of the more intangible and elusive aspects of vernacular life. Social and cultural values of the period are particularly difficult to access as surviving indicators of these are limited. Literary sources have limited value in a society which expressed itself in a predominantly non-literate fashion. Vernacular buildings can provide a major source of information and this research argues that wall paintings were a key element in vernacular buildings at a specific time during the transition from a medieval to an early modern society and are, therefore, a crucial record of changing social and cultural values.
Supervisor: Airs, Malcolm Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Mural painting and decoration ; Great Britain