Thursday, 31 July 2014

MEANDERING POMEGRANATES a painted cloth (part 1)

A commission to reproduce a striking mid-C16th wall painting as a large painted cloth.

Painted cloth in situ
Painted cloth in situ

Bayleaf is a beautiful, early C15th, timber-framed hall-house. It sits in the bucolic 50 acre grounds of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum near Chichester. This really is a fascinating and magical place to visit.

Bayleaf at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum
Bayleaf at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum

This commission was prompted by the need to replace the existing woven backcloth. It had become faded and darkened with soot from the open fire since it was hung in the 1980's. The museum decided to replace it with a painted cloth which was a very popular decorative device in the Sixteeenth Century.

The central hall with the woven cloth before it was replaced
The central hall with the woven cloth before it was replaced

In this 1st of two posts I'll introduce the design and its setting then next time we'll go behind the scenes at my studio to see how it was done.

So the design for this cloth is a reconstruction of a surviving wall painting at Althrey Hall, Flintshire, North Wales. It's a lovely example of imitation paned textiles with alternating grey and yellow stripes (though it is tricky to make them out now as the plaster and studding have aged differently)

 original wall painting at Althrey Hall
The original wall painting at Althrey Hall
Like many wall painting designs of the period this one is aspirational; representing expensive, high status fabrics imported from overseas. These textiles were often produced in narrow widths that would be sewn together in contrasting strips. The yellow stripe may represent Renaissance "cloth of gold";  brocaded silks or velvets with large meandering stems bearing pomegranates, thistles, artichokes...these became known as "pomegranate" designs and are often to be seen on clothing in portraits or as backdrops such as in this scene by Mantegna:

"Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Manua, and his family"  fresco by Andrea Mantegna at the Palazzo Ducale
"Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Manua, and his family
fresco by Andrea Mantegna at the Palazzo Ducale

Meanwhile the grey stripe features a feathered trellis with rooted sprigs of flowers. This criss-cross device was also very common in wall painting and could feature floral motifs inspired by herbales or knot gardens.

Detail of the original wall painting at Althrey Hall
Detail of the original wall painting at Althrey Hall
We don't know for sure that the motifs depict pomegranates, they could be another plant but running across the top of the design is a frieze that most certainly does feature open pomegranates baring their seeds interspersed with large acanthus leaves.

The iconic pomegranate motif is laden with symbolism both religious and secular. The crown-like flower has regal connotations, for its ability to thrive in arid places it is associated with immortality and its abundant seeds represent fertility and regeneration. I won't delve any further into the iconography of the design here. Suffice it to say the design is what one might call conventional and traditional; well suited to its setting at Bayleaf where it would have served to frame and elevate the status of those seated in front of it.

New painted cloth in Bayleaf hall
New painted cloth in Bayleaf hall
As I worked on reconstructing the design I was struck by how bold and graphic it was. Whilst it blended with the abundance of colour and pattern at my studio I wondered how it would work in the stark, neutral interior of the hall house. I was fascinated to visit Bayleaf after it was installed and to find it well suited to the space. Dwarfed by the imposing height of the hall its impact is very localised and draws the eye to the important end of the room. It's easy to forget how little pattern there would have been in an interior of this period. Some in the clothing, some on ceramics and carved into wood but no soft furnishings, carpets or curtains. With textiles still being very expensive, a patterned cloth painted on relatively cheap linen with basic earth pigments was an affordable and immediate way of getting pattern and bright colours into an interior as well as offering some insulation.

The painted cloth and head table
The painted cloth and head table

When we supplied painted cloths for Shakespeare's Birthplace Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 2000 the change of scene was equally impactful and quite controversial. Visitors often expect a Tudor interior to be all white-washed walls and dark oak beams whereas in fact pattern and colour were prevalent and far bolder, far louder than we are accustomed to nowadays. It is challenging for a museum to reinstate such features but it is a wonderful opportunity to instigate a conversation about what it was actually like to live in these interiors.

In September the museum is hosting a series of talks that will explore the domestic interiors of historic homes. 

Sunday 21st September 2014, 10am to 4pm

The Museum also commissioned film maker Darren Mapletoft to produce a film about the process of creating the cloth. It includes conversations between Catherine Richardson, Danae Tankard and me both at my studio during production and later on site once the cloth has been installed.

Many thanks to the museum's social historian Danae Tankard and Catherine Richardson (see below) for making this an intriguing and fascinating journey.

Recommended Reading:

Catherine Richardson, reader in Renaissance Studies at the University of Kent, has written an insightful post about her visit to my studio on her blog "Material Histories"

"Early modern design in the age of  mechanical reproduction?"

There is lots of interesting information about Cloth of Gold and Pomegranate designs in Lisa Monas' sumptuous book:

 Merchants Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings 1300 to 1550

And if you're interested in Tudor wall paintings and painted cloths you must read Kathryn Davies book:

"Artisan Art: Vernacular wall paintrings in the Welsh Marches 1550-1650"


Bozena Wojtaszek said...

Just watched it on youtube and am totally blown away - love your process and the final results!

Melissa White Interiors said...

Thanks Bozena. It was a fascinating project and I love the process too.