5 Historical English Wall Paintings and the Stories Behind Them

Recently, I've become really fascinated by the idea of wall paintings, mostly because I've started to create them with my friend Amy at Two Lost Birds. We travel around the Reading area painting murals for customers - one was a beautiful pink cherry blossom mural with copper leaf for a child's bedroom and then we painted a beautiful black, white and grey elephant on a customer's garage door. We've been involved with many others, too! If you want us to come and paint a wall mural for you, message Amy here and say Jo sent you

But murals and wall paintings are nothing new. The Romans were big fans, with traces of paintings still preserved on the walls of long-vacated villas. They go back even further, to the Prehistoric periods as our ancestors tried to mark the hunt and other scenes on cave walls. They've been used to convey lots of things; myths and legend, religious scenes or simply moments from everyday life. I tracked down 5 historical wall paintings that caught my eye and examined the stories behind them. 

Guild Chapel, Stratford Upon Avon, Warwickshire

This wall painting was covered up for almost three hundred years, until it was discovered in the early nineteenth century. It depicts a number of religious images including Doom, The Life of Adam and St George and the Dragon, and were painted on the wall of the Guild Chapel in Stratford Upon Avon, the chapel dating to the mid-thirteenth century. Elizabeth I ordered all religious paintings to be covered up and evidence suggests William Shakespeare's father John assisted in this as Town Chamberlain, whitewashing the wall. The present building dates to the early 1400s, and so it's likely this is the date of the paintings. The painting below depicts The Judgement. 

Medieval Painting on Guild Chapel Wall, Stratford Upon Avon. Wikimedia Commons, CC04

The King's Staircase, Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace is well known as one of the main residences of the Tudor court, from Henry VIII onwards. However Henry would never have known this staircase. The staircase was constructed in the palace by Sir Christopher Wren in the seventeenth century, with wall paintings by the Italian artist Antonio Verrio. Painted during the reign of Charles II, it is Baroque in style, with cherubs, angels, clouds and swirling drapery. It makes use of 2D trickery in the beautifully shaded Roman pillars and columns, to help create the feel of space beyond the wall. Verrio died at Hampton Court in 1707. 

The King's Staircase, Hampton Court Palace, public domain

The Town Council Offices, Ledbury

The painted walls in what used to be the offices of Ledbury Town Council were created for a different reason. The building itself dates to around 1510, so during the early reign of Henry VIII, but some time in the 1560s-1570s the walls in the chamber upstairs were painted with rich colours. The design includes garden knots, herbs and flowers and verses. It's thought that its purpose was to fool the eye into thinking that it was a tapestry draped across the wall, a cheaper version to create and maintain. Even the timbers that you see would one day have been painted to match the rest of the wall, and would have been invisible when the painting was fresh. 

Ledbury Town Council, Pic: Jo Romero

Checkendon Church, Oxfordshire

Checkendon Church is nestled on a rural road, a stout church with a stone tower, the path up to it dotted with gravestones lying lazily in the soil. But inside, there's a real treat. These wall paintings are said to date from the early 1200s, placing them either during the reign of King John or Henry III. Depicting religious imagery along with, on one wall, a knight in armour - the paintings around the altar underwent heavy (and some say, controversial) restoration work in the 1950s. They are a beautiful and unexpected treat as you enter the church. You can find out more about my visit here

Checkendon Church, Pic: Jo Romero

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Hardwick was the home of the Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess Hardwick. She was one of the country's wealthiest women during the Elizabethan Age, and gained the respect of the Queen, Elizabeth I. As well as rebuilding Hardwick, she also built Chatsworth House, taking a keen interest in her building works well into old age. This wall painting surrounds the Queen's coat of arms, showing trees, roses, figures and what appears to be a pelican, an Elizabethan symbol of sacrifice and motherhood. Bess furthered the interests of her children, and played a central role in the guardianship of Mary, Queen of Scots, her husband George, Earl of Shrewsbury having been tasked with her custody in the 1560s. This painting dates to around the 1590s, by which time she had separated from her husband. The work has been completed by painting over plaster, some of the shapes moulded by hand to create a three-dimensional appearance. This would have been more marked during the evenings as the fire flickered and light from the candles cast against the wall, the shadows of the figures and tree trunks becoming even more realistic. 

Hardwick Hall Fireplace, Tony Hisgett,  CC 2.0

What do you think? Are there any wall paintings from history that I've missed? Let me know about them in the comments below. 

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: