Archaeological evidence above ground: The chapel

Pages 19-22

Survey of London: Volume 28, Brooke House, Hackney. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.

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The Chapel and its Wall Painting

Shortly before the demolition of the last remaining portion of the building the evidence provided by the fabric above ground was completed by the discovery, in the angle between the Georgian block and the south range, of a series of wall paintings on the north wall of Room 14 (Q Plates 5, 30). To outward appearance this room was situated on the ground floor of the Georgian block; but in its north wall, which had been obscured by cupboards and panelling, were two Tudor-arched recesses, 6 feet wide by rather less than 9 feet 6 inches high, separated by an eighteen-inch brick pier and having their backs set in about a foot from the face. To the west of these, and similar to them except that the springing of its arch was 4 feet 6 inches lower than theirs, was the beginning of a third recess; whilst to the east was a short stretch of plain wall, about 4 feet 6 inches long, between the eastern recess and the corner of the room. The piers and arches were chamfered, and the whole wall, except for the back of the eastern recess, was plastered, the plaster being covered with a thick coating of limewhite. The brickwork exposed within the eastern recess was of the Tudor type, but the outside (east) wall of the room was of eighteenth-century construction (Plates 31, 32a).

The floor of the room was modern, with the joists spanning from front to back. After it had been removed it was found that the north wall (the south wall was modern) showed no signs of housings for binders or joists belonging to any earlier floor, which, if it had existed, would doubtless have been constructed like the other floors of the original house, with primary and secondary binders. The inference is that there was originally no floor at this level, and that Room 22, immediately below, had once formed the lower part of Room 14. That Room 22 had, in fact, been, or formed part of, a room of some importance was shown by the discovery, below the existing floor level, of the remains of a floor of Purbeck marble slabs: and in its north wall, the face of which was half a brick in advance of that of the wall above, were four square-headed recesses roughly corresponding to the three above.

One further point in the construction of these two rooms must be noticed. As we have already seen the arched head of the western recess of the upper range was at a lower level, by 4 feet 6 inches, than the heads of the other two, suggesting that above it had been some feature that prevented its being taken up to the full height. The remains of a beam let into the wall, at a point immediately to the west of the adjacent full-sized recess and slightly above the apex of the arch of the smaller one, perhaps indicated that above the latter there had been a gallery, approached from the staircase that must have given access to Room 60 above. It should be observed incidentally that a beam at the height just described would not have allowed head room above a floor at the level of that of Room 14 (Plate 31b).

The abnormal height of the room as originally constructed, the Purbeck marble floor, the wall decorated with recesses in two stages and the possibility, if not probability, of there having been a gallery at the west end, all pointed to the conclusion that this had once been the chapel of the house. The discovery, on the wide pier at the east end of the upper stage, of a wall painting, the principal feature of which was the figure of a man in ecclesiastical vestments (Frontispiece), can be accepted as proof that it was so.

The painting was stripped of its coating of limewhite and the exploration extended to the whole of the plastered surface of the wall, to reveal additional traces of decoration, some of it very much fainter than the portion first uncovered at the east end. The method of painting was apparently dry fresco, and the colours used were what appeared, when uncovered, as bluish-black and Indian red, with here and there traces of yellow, on a white ground.

Extending along the top of the wall was a frieze about a foot deep, containing shields of arms (one of them Radclyffe, the other unidentified) alternating with the letter W, or crossed double V, all in black line and wash, and bounded below by a thin black line which was broken by the heads of the arches belonging to the two taller recesses. The pier between these bore a letter T (or a Tau cross) in black, alternating with a Tudor rose in black and white, and the chamfers were decorated with beaded chevrons in red and black. The reveals of the more westerly of the taller recesses had black birds (possibly falcons) with red talons on a white ground alternating with sprays of white foliage on a square red ground. Those of the eastern recess also had birds divided from one another by scrolls bearing undecipherable inscriptions in black gothic script (Plate 31).

Except for the gothic script, which suffered some damage in the process of uncovering, this decoration was fairly strong and clear. That at the back of the more westerly of the two taller recesses, and the vestiges remaining in the smaller recess, were very much fainter. They seemed also to be very different in character from that already described. So far as could be seen the background within the larger recess had been covered with a pattern of sunbursts, small five-petalled flowers and birds perched on twigs, intertwined (at least in places) with scrolled foliage, possibly acanthus. All of these except the sunrays (which were very pale red) showed faintly grey and appeared to have been executed in black pigment, though the flowers were generally much stronger than the rest, and may have consisted of the faded relics of some other colour. There were, besides, to the left of the centre, signs of an ornamented vertical band of red (though the nature of the ornament could not be discovered) and, on the right-hand side, a figure bearing a foliated cross, over which, about half-way down, was a comparatively prominent scroll in black. The inscription on the scroll was undecipherable, and below the feet of the figure was an unrecognizable shape. At the back of the smaller recess was nothing to which any particular significance could be attached, the only things visible being some brush scrolls and flourishes in black. These might, presumably, have followed some lost inscription.

Apart from a few small pieces the whole of this decoration was destroyed as being too mutilated for retention. Much better preserved, and, for that reason alone, more interesting, was the fragment, now in the London Museum, on the wide pier at the east end of the wall (Plates 32, 33). As has already been noticed, the return east wall was of eighteenthcentury construction, but must have occupied roughly the same position as the earlier east wall of the room. Originally, therefore, the painting was close to the north-east corner of the chapel.

It depicts, below the frieze already described, the figure of an apparently high-ranking ecclesiastic, standing on a conventionally portrayed red and white tiled floor against a background representing a wall or wall-hanging covered with slightly irregular engrailed diaper decoration in red, outlined in black. In the right-hand bottom corner, in the attitude and position generally associated with the donor, is a small figure wearing an ordinary clerical habit. Each diaper in the two highest horizontal rows contains a Tudor rose in black, with a white centre, and there is a similar one in the only complete diaper in the sixth row down. In the third row, level with, and partly obscured by, the shoulders of the standing figure, is the inscription /?/ (Jesus Christus Dominus? see The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. vii, 1910, article I.H.S., by R. Maere). At the bottom of the conventionalized wall, on the left, a half diaper contains the letter W in the same crossed V form as those in the frieze.

Fig. 8. Wall painting, key to figures

The standing figure (fig. 8) is a bearded man with delicately drawn features turned slightly towards the east, his right hand apparently raised and his left hand holding a double-transomed cross and staff (A) and crossed keys (B) outlined in black. He wears a red cope (C) on which is a pattern of white pear-shaped motifs, edged with white orphreys (D). The cope is fastened at the neck with a vesica-shaped morse (E) and trails stiffly on the ground. The dalmatic (F) is black, with a red stripe down the centre of the front, and a fringe of alternate black and white sections at bottom and side. The red tunicle (G) is similarly fringed with red and white. Below it, outlined against the white alb (H), with its square red apparel at the centre of the lower edge, are the two fringed ends of the red stole (K). The figure wears an exceptionally large head-dress, spherical in shape and surmounted by a cross. A loose glove is worn on the left hand, which grasps the staff and keys.

The smaller figure (fig. 8) is kneeling and appears to be wearing a black cassock or overgown with a black tippet edged with white fur. There seems to be no hood. On the head is a skull-cap with moderately long hair protruding below it. The face is vigorously drawn, giving the impression of being a portrait from the life.

There can be little doubt that the whole scheme of painting (with the possible exception of that within the more westerly of the two larger arches) belongs to the very end of the fifteenth century. Certainly the Tudor roses place it firmly after 1485. As for the significance of the emblems, and particularly of the two figures just described, it seems preferable to postpone discussion of the matter until later (page 67), when the relevant documentary evidence can be brought to bear on the problem.