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
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