‘Heaven will one day open the king’s eyes’, says the Lord Chamberlain in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’. For two SPAB members, that day came last August – in their living room. What began as a simple repair to crumbling plaster went on to become one of the greatest art historical finds in Britain of recent years: the discovery of a contemporary painting of King Henry, covered up for centuries.Hester Lacey reports on the still unfolding story of this treasure, and the research and conservation work which is well under way. Photographs John Lawrence.
Many owners of old buildings must dream of discovering an artefact of genuine historical significance. For most, this remains a dream. However, SPAB members Rhodri and Angie Powell’s home in Milverton, Somerset, revealed just such an artefact in August last year, when replastering work uncovered a 16th-century wall painting of King Henry VIII.
The painting, executed in reds, ochres and blues, is extraordinarily well-preserved. It is in the room that would have been the hall of the house when the painting was executed, now the Powells’ living room. It was discovered entirely by chance, as what should have been a routine maintenance job was carried out.
“The wall had been replastered with gypsum plaster and the surface was coming off in sheets,” explains Rhodri, who has worked in publishing and conservation. “It needed to be redone with lime plaster.” The couple called in conservation plasterer Jeremy Lile, who has extensive experience of working in older properties. “As the wall was taken back to the old mud, lime and horsehair render, a patch fell off, revealing orange and blue and something that looked like an oak leaf,” recalls Rhodri.
The Powells had seen traces of what looked like old wall paintings elsewhere in the house, so they decided to see what lay behind the render. “Parts that were quite damp came off easily, then it became more tricky as Jeremy worked across the wall. He stopped when we saw the eyes.”
As soon as the eyes were uncovered, Angie, a successful author, was immediately convinced that the subject of the painting was Henry VIII – a perceptive guess that was later proved correct, both by the detail of the painting itself and by expert confirmation.
Jeremy Lile found the discovery as thrilling as the Powells. Most of his work involves removing modern plaster, which often reveals old doorways, fireplaces and windows that have been covered – but this is the first time his work has led to the rediscovery of a unique work of art.Without the clue revealed by the patch of render that initially came away, the painting might have remained concealed forever. “In 99.9 per cent of cases, I would have repaired the earth mortar with a lime skim without removing it,” says Lile. He worked exceptionally carefully as the painting was revealed, initially suspecting he might have located an ancient frieze. “The last thing I wanted to do was cause any damage.”
What do you do when you uncover a feature in your home that may be historically extremely significant? The Powells began by contacting Bob Croft, the county archaeologist for Somerset, who, in turn, notified English Heritage, as did the Powells themselves. However, they received no response from resources-starved English Heritage, and decided to ask Jeremy Lile to remove the rest of the plaster – filming the process. “Henry is off-centre, so we wondered if there might be someone sitting next to him, but he’s alone,” says Angie. “We knew we would have to find a professional conservator and we didn’t really know who to contact; we heard about Ann Ballantyne from several sources – she was clearly the expert we needed.” Ann Ballantyne spent a week cleaning and stabilising the painting in December last year and is due to return shortly to carry out further work. A friend of the Powells who is a BBC cameraman asked if he could do a piece for a local news broadcast – and this led to final confirmation of the significance of the find. Among viewers who by chance saw the news item was Michael Liversidge FSA, Emeritus Dean of Arts at Bristol University.
“I saw a very brief item and wanted to find out more,” says Liversidge. “I contacted the reporter and was able to look at a proper photograph. By later that day I had a clear idea that this was a very unusual wall painting, unique as far as we know.” Liversidge went to see the painting in situ. Together with his colleague, Dr Tatiana String FSA, a specialist in Henrician art now based at the University of North Carolina, he will be publishing a joint paper following further research this summer.
The style of the painting, says Liversidge, is typical of English medieval work, executed straight on to the plaster. “There are 15th-century and early 16th-century examples of decorative wall paintings in medieval and Tudor interiors,” he says. “The style is the same as for late medieval wall paintings in churches.
“We’re not dealing with a sophisticated painting in oils or tempera, but a very straightforward, basic, almost distempery approach.” The painter would have used organic materials; earth pigments and vegetal pigments, although which ones were used in this instance is yet to be identified.
Henry VIII is instantly recognisable. “This is traditional iconography for the king enthroned in his majesty,” says Liversidge. “An earlier example is the famous, very large painting of Richard II in Westminster Abbey; they are very similar images. This is essentially an image rather than a portrait. It corresponds very closely to the 1542 third Great Seal of Henry VIII and to a tradition of royal images that goes back into the early medieval, even Byzantine times. From 1533, images of Henry VIII are quite specific; in coinage and other representations Henry is very clearly identifiable.”
The painting is unique in that no other painting of its kind has come to light in a domestic setting. “It is of very great interest in what it tells us about the dissemination of the king’s image and the uses to which it was put from the 1530s onwards,” explains Liversidge. “There may be other examples that have disappeared over the course of time. We know a great deal about the use of the royal image at court, on coinage, seals and so on, through the work of Tatiana String, Roy Strong and David Starkey, but this is in a different context.”
The painting itself contains most of the answers in terms of dating and function, says Liversidge; he and Dr String will be able to interpret it more clearly when Ann Ballantyne has finished her work. But other questions are more mysterious: such as when, by whom and why it was covered up.
Preceding page: Rhodri and Angie Powell with a Tudor monarch in their living room. This page (above, from left), Henry the young king, circa 1620; as he appears in the new-found mural; and in later life, a portrait after Holbein. Below, the king’s Great Seal – inspiration for the mural?
The Powells’ home was formerly owned by the Archdeacons of Taunton, who counted the prebend of Milverton among their properties. It is likely that the painting is an expression of loyalty to the king, who was made head of the church in 1533 – a status signalled by the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, painted above his crown. “Probably in terms of the individual archdeacon for whom the painting was done, it was an expression of adherence to the new ideology of the English church,” says Liversidge. “The hall was a space that had public and official functions and this painting expressed the authority of the king over church and state. In a time of political turmoil and religious changes, it was a clear signal of the politics of the individual and the nation.”
Clues in the iconography and style of the painting make it likely that it was created while John Redman (or Redmayn, or Redmayne) was Archdeacon, a post he held from 1541. For example, the throne on which Henry is sitting is taken from the title page of the Great Bible distributed in 1539, which suggests that the painting was done after that date. “We think the painting can be dated to his time,” says Liversidge. “This poses a fascinating question: was this particular individual the one who concealed the painting?” It is possible, he says, that the painting was hidden around the time of the accession of Mary in 1553, when she re-established the Catholic faith in England.
Above, Rhodri and Angie Powell at home in Somerset – getting to grips with the responsibilities of owning a nationally important artwork. Left, Henry circa 1540
An image portraying a secular head of the Church of England would have potentially been a dangerous item to display.
The Powells, who moved to their grade II* listed home in May 2007, are far from intimidated by the prospect of living under Henry’s gaze. Perhaps not surprisingly, the painting is entirely in keeping with the lofty ceiling and scale of their living room. “It looks just right. There is a real feeling of the house revealing something of itself,” says Ms Powell. “The house has been very much restored, the Georgians and Victorians stripped away the feel of a medieval building, and, while Henry isn’t medieval, he’s getting back to those times.”
Despite its great age, the image seems to be robust, despite the installation of a Georgian fireplace below it which led to a few minor slips and cracks. “As far as we can tell, the only pigment that is light sensitive is the blue, which appears to be indigo,” says Rhodri. “Most of it is ochres, various forms of red lead, which are not affected by light.” The Powells plan to keep the blinds in the room closed, install the kind of ultra-violet screening on the windows that is used in museums, and try to maintain fairly constant levels of heat and humidity. They will be happy to open their home occasionally to interested visitors; the Somerset Archaeological Society, for example, witnessed Jeremy Lile’s removal of the plaster and the Powells are planning an open day later in the year, with readings from contemporary documents.
English Heritage has now offered to create a photographic record of the painting. However, as far as the Powells can ascertain, their find is their own responsibility. “We understand that grants for conservation are restricted to public buildings,” says Angie. While the Powells are sanguine about the responsibility, they feel that there is a distinct lack of support for anyone who finds themselves in a similar position. “What is needed is a body of advice and help from people who love old buildings rather than people who are concerned with planning laws,” she suggests.
As Rhodri notes: “the painting is not saleable, replaceable or moveable”; which makes it extremely fortunate that it was uncovered by home owners who wish to do none of those things – and who were able to recognise the importance of the find they had made.
“I don’t imagine this will be the last interesting painted wall to turn up in an old house. The protection of such things exists in and through the listings system,” says Michael Liversidge. “On the other hand, in 100 years’ time, we don’t know what the legislation might be or who the painting’s owners might be. The Powells are tremendously interested and excited by their find and, quite rightly, see themselves as responsible curators.” It is to be hoped that future owners of the house take a similar position.