The imitation of architecture: decorative surfaces in Tudor buildings

Maurice Howard, Professor of Art History, University of Sussex

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

As we investigate the techniques and processes of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery it will be possible to extend the Making Art in Tudor Britain project’s findings across a range of issues to do with the possibilities of paint in the early modern period. Paint has always been used to simulate other materials but this was not always simply to replicate something which might otherwise not be sourced, or unable to be afforded. Paint can suggest not only materials but ways of using and thinking about an object as well as thinking about meaning and reference to individual patrons. The back of a triptych by Duccio in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is painted to appear as a rich, red marble surface but it is also decorated with interlaced squares the edges of which are metal-coloured, suggesting the locks or clasps with which an object like this would originally have been fastened. The effects of marbling are now better understood and advances in this technique have been noted from the examination of National Portrait Gallery portraits such as those of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton and Sir William Cecil, who are posed against marble columns and drapery.

In the portrait of Henry VII at the Society of Antiquaries, London, the recently-uncovered green and white barber-pole ornament around three sides of the frame are Tudor heraldic colours, found on the poles bearing the royal beasts in Tudor gardens of the kind recently reconstituted at Hampton Court. Similar associations of a heraldic kind were frequently applied to buildings; we know from recent examination of the 1590s facade of Exeter Town Hall, now looking clean and stark in a very provincial classical style, that it was once painted with the city’s heraldic colours. 

Tudor and Stuart patrons clearly thought about the ways of understanding decorated surfaces but we don’t always know why they made certain decisions. On the walls of the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, we see two narrative sequences of almost equal height; a set of tapestry showing the story of Ulysees below and a painted plaster frieze of the goddess Diana at the hunt above.  Were the different kinds of illusion employed here to tell the story made on the basis of what was available, or that one kind of classical story was more appropriate in one medium rather than another, or that the different kinds of fiction here asked the viewer to question the ways we perceive the world? In the famous image of Queen Elizabeth receiving the Dutch Ambassadors, a work on paper dating from about 1580, the walls are usually assumed to be hung with textiles, but since the artist is thought to be German, it may be relevant to speculate as to whether this is actually the case given the many examples of rooms painted with simulated textile hangings in Germany at this period.

Simulated materials were often also the result of the speed with which contemporary craftsmen worked. At the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 we know that the palace constructed for Henry VIII was put up with a brick base and ‘walls’ above this made of wood and canvas, painted to look like stone and plaster. But of course the familiar means by which the King was lodged at such occasions was under canvas, in the great tents, images of which survive. So paint is used here to take the illusion of canvas just a bit further towards more permanent forms of building. We know too that during Elizabeth I’s reign, paint was frequently applied to the walls of the royal palaces, especially that of Whitehall, to replenish the ornament found on their walls; something of this is recorded in the gable end shown through the arch in the background to the painting of Henry VIII and his Family from the 1540s, in the Royal Collection.

There are many examples of painted interiors, or rather sadly, fragments of these, across England from this period. The painted interiors of the counties of England bordering Wales have recently been the subject of a specialist study. One piece of illusionistic painting, originally fixed to a wall surface, is the fragment of fictive panelling, actually painted on canvas, that comes from the Hertfordshire house, The Lockers, and now at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Looking at this, one might well ask, did the patron commission fictive panelling because the wooden version was too expensive, or was the creation of something as illusionistic as this meant not to fool the viewer but to ask that person to share in the visual cleverness of it all, the very act of employing the painter who could deceive the eye a deliberate decision to invite comparison between wood and paint, for which of course the painter might have charged a fee equal to that of the woodcarver.