Into the wardrobe

2, Wardrobe Place, Lon­don EC4 John Goodall wel­comes the con­ser­va­tion of two painted chim­ney over­man­tles that of­fer a glimpse of the colour­ful do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors en­joyed by pros­per­ous 17th-cen­tury Lon­don­ers

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

John Goodall re­ports on a pair of painted chim­ney over-man­tels

IN March 1678, the foun­da­tions were de­mar­cated for a new se­ries of build­ings along Carter Lane, a short dis­tance to the south of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. Lon­don was in the process of re­con­struc­tion in the af­ter­math of the Great Fire 12 years pre­vi­ously. Its new churches, liv­ery halls and houses were all raised on the in­her­ited foun­da­tions of the medieval city. The new de­vel­op­ment was no ex­cep­tion, tak­ing as its foot­print the for­mer site of the King’s Wardrobe and its gar­den. This lost in­sti­tu­tion of the royal house­hold not only gives its name to the name of the ad­ja­cent par­ish church —St An­drew by the Wardrobe—but of the de­vel­op­ment in ques­tion, Wardrobe Place (for­merly Wardrobe Court) in EC1, a se­questered square too small for traf­fic.

A view of one of the chim­ney breasts. The fire­place is a late-19th­cen­tury in­ser­tion, but it must roughly cor­re­spond to the pro­por­tions of its pre­de­ces­sor. Above the man­tel­piece is a band of dark mar­bling and, above this, is a skat­ing scene en­closed within a fic­tive frame. The im­age is cer­tainly in­spired by Dutch genre paint­ing, but the tri­corn of the cen­tral fig­ure in­tro­duces an English el­e­ment into the de­sign. No­tice that the paint­ing is asym­met­ri­cally placed on the breast, with a thin strip of plain wall vis­i­ble to the right. Both im­ages are laid out asym­met­ri­cally in this way, although it’s not clear why

Al­most mirac­u­lously, the sub­se­quent re­de­vel­op­ment of Lon­don has left this small neigh­bour­hood rel­a­tively undis­turbed. Wan­der­ing through the zany net­work of sur­round­ing streets, there­fore, it re­mains pos­si­ble to ap­pre­ci­ate some­thing of how the mo­tor­car and large-scale de­vel­op­ment has trans­formed the city’s char­ac­ter. Here, for ex­am­ple, the prin­ci­pal streets run steeply down­hill to con­nect the main thor­ough­fare of the city to the source of its wealth, the jet­ties and wharves of the river.

In 1681, nine houses in the newly com­pleted court on the for­mer site of the Wardrobe stood empty and ready for oc­cu­pa­tion. Among them was pre­sum­ably 2, Wardrobe Place, a hand­some brick house with a five­bay frontage. This build­ing has sub­se­quently un­der­gone con­sid­er­able al­ter­ation, both ex­ter­nally and in­ter­nally. Nev­er­the­less, it pre­serves two fea­tures that tes­tify to its 17th-cen­tury ori­gins.

The first is a fine stair­case that rises the full height of the in­te­rior. Much more un­usual, how­ever, is the painted dec­o­ra­tion above two fireplaces in what were prob­a­bly for­merly bed­rooms on the sec­ond floor of the build­ing. They were pre­sum­ably ex­e­cuted in the 1680s, although it’s im­pos­si­ble to date them pre­cisely.

Painted do­mes­tic dec­o­ra­tion was a 17th-cen­tury com­mon­place, but it’s ex­tremely rare to find well-pre­served ex­am­ples of such work and, in Lon­don, these pre­cious sur­vivals are with­out par­al­lel. They are also re­mark­ably com­plete and of­fer a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse of the do­mes­tic spaces fa­mil­iar to the cap­i­tal’s well-to-do in the decades after the Great Fire. Their sub­ject mat­ter re­flects an in­ter­est with ru­ral life and the sea­sons. Both pos­si­bly re­late to Dutch en­grav­ings or genre paint­ing.

The paint­ings were first re­vealed in about 1983, when they were also coated with a preser­va­tive ma­te­rial that sub­se­quently con­trib­uted to their rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and dis­coloura­tion. The present owner, the prop­erty de­vel­oper Bri­tish Land, has now paid for the paint­ings to be con­served and fully pro­tected. Their treat­ment, un­der­taken by the con­ser­va­tors Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede, in­volved careful clean­ing to re­move the dam­ag­ing coat­ing.

Both paint­ings are ex­e­cuted di­rectly onto the plas­ter of the chim­ney­breasts. These project deeply into the room. In tech­ni­cal and stylis­tic terms, they match each other so closely that they must both have been painted at the same time and by the same hand or hands. A creamy wash forms a ground for both paint­ings, the de­tails of which are freely set out us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of graphite un­der draw­ing and in­cised marks.

The main pig­ments used were cheap and read­ily avail­able, sug­gest­ing the work of trades­men painters, whose pal­ette was lim­ited by leg­is­la­tion of the Painter-stain­ers’ Com­pany to ‘Whit­ing, Black­ing, Redlead, Re­doker, Yel­low Oker and Rus­set min­gled with size only’. How­ever, more ex­trav­a­gant colours are also present, in­clud­ing blue indigo and ver­mil­ion, in­di­cat­ing the fail­ure of this leg­is­la­tion by the end of the 17th cen­tury.

The idea of re­pro­duc­ing im­ages of paint­ings at Wardrobe Place is it­self note­wor­thy. Hith­erto, do­mes­tic wall paint­ings had usu­ally im­i­tated the form of fab­rics, re­pro­duc­ing the rich ef­fects of hang­ings at a frac­tion of the cost. Framed paint­ings as a fea­ture of grand in­te­rior de­sign were a 16th-cen­tury in­no­va­tion and, by the early 17th cen­tury, the idea of fixed pan­els over chim­ney­p­ieces—of­ten Dutch views or still-lifes—was well es­tab­lished in great houses. By the 1680s, Lon­don’s mer­chant classes were clearly aspir­ing to the same kinds of dis­play.

A view of a house and gar­den painted above the sec­ond chim­ney. In the fore­ground is a crudely de­picted roller for lev­el­ling the gravel paths, a dog and a man smok­ing a pipe. The right-hand side of the paint­ing is awk­wardly com­posed and ig­nores the lines of per­spec­tive that oth­er­wise struc­ture the im­age vis­ually. Per­haps the log­gia and the dark strip above were su­per­im­posed on the orig­i­nal de­sign to broaden it? The house is not iden­ti­fi­able

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