While peeling away layers of plaster as part of routine preparations for a building repair project, a team of restorers in England made “the discovery of a lifetime.” At Calverley Old Hall, a medieval manor in West Yorkshire, the restorers found shockingly well-preserved Tudor wall paintings likely dating to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century.
Anna Keay, director of the Landmark Trust, a British building conservation nonprofit leading the restoration, said they were working on “one of the less interesting rooms,” a semi-derelict parlor block, when they noticed signs of early wall paintings. They turned out to be one of the most sophisticated surviving examples of an Elizabethan painted chamber.
“Never in my own 27 years of working in historic buildings have I ever witnessed a discovery like this,” Keay wrote in a blog post. “Hidden panelling, 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.”
The wall-to-ceiling panels depict mythical beasts, cackling birds, and foliage patterns in red, black, and white pigment. The intricate motifs are typical of Elizabethan “grotesque work,” a decorative scheme first developed for the Roman Emperor Nero’s Golden House. The designs were discovered in the 1480s and widely popularized, making their way into the homes of the Italian Renaissance elite. In England, grotesque work patterns arrived through printed books and engravings from Northern Europe. The Calverley Old Hall paintings also feature a frieze with Tudor roses and pomegranates, known as the emblems of Catherine of Aragon.
Caroline Stanford, a historian for the Landmark Trust, says the paintings were often done by local craftsmen and sometimes by traveling painters.
“We don’t know where the designs came from, but perhaps the Calverleys provided the print book for its source,” Stanford said in a video. “Most surviving wall paintings date from after 1575, so ours are exceptionally early.”
The trust, which restores historic buildings and rents them out as holiday accommodation, has launched a fundraising campaign to help restore and preserve the paintings, with a funding goal of £94,000 (~$126,000). Calverley Old Hall is considered one of the most at-risk buildings in England.
“It’s part of the thrill of our projects that such discoveries occur however carefully we do our initial groundwork,” Stanford said. “But they do add to costs.”