Joseph's brothers lift him from the pit to sell him to the merchants from Gilead (right)
|THE LIVELY PAINTED CLOTHS in Queen's Margaret's Chamber at Owlpen are said to be unique as a complete decorative scheme of such work still in situ in England. They are certainly the best example surviving of what was once a very common form of interior decoration. Frequently recorded in early wills, inventories and account books, where such cloths are valued at sixpence to a shilling a yard, they give a privileged idea of the appearance of many Tudor and Stuart interiors, before the introduction of wall-papers. Many must have been destroyed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when ‘improving’ and modernizing old houses.|
|Now only fragments of such work survive in a few provincial museums and old houses. They include those at the Anne of Cleves Museum at Lewes (Sussex), Yarde Farm, Kingsbridge (Devon), The White House, Munslow (Shropshire), Gainsborough Old Hall Museum (Lincolnshire), Luton Museum, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (Stratford-on-Avon) and The Victoria and Albert Museum (from Bentley, Hampshire). Some appear to be from the same workshop, the backgrounds painted to standard designs from pattern books.|
Such textiles were known as ‘painted’ or ‘stained’ cloths, or ‘water-work’, though the technique of each may originally have been slightly different, with painters and stainers maintaining separate guilds until 1502. They were a cheaper substitute for tapestry, as here in the upstairs rooms of manor houses, or in the halls of farmhouses.
They are of the kind recommended by Falstaff to Mistress Quickly, so she should pawn her ‘fly-bitten tapestry’:
and for thy walls, a pretty slight drollery, or the story of the Prodigal, or the German hunting in water-work is worth a thousand of these fly-bitten tapestries
(2 Henry IV, II. ii).
Shakespeare refers several times to such painted cloths: Robert Arden, his grandfather, had eleven of them. Estienne Perlin, writing in 1558, remarks that ‘the English use many hangings, painted cloths (toilles pinctes), which are well done … you can enter few houses but you find such cloths’. By John Aubrey’s time, in the 1640s, they were already old fashioned and provincial. They are first recorded in England in the mid-fourteenth century, continuing to the late seventeenth century, carefully distinguished from tables, or easel paintings on panels.
The painted cloth was the forerunner of the painting on canvas, which was gradually to replace the painting on panel. The technique was similar to that employed for stage scenery, festival banners pageants, and designs for masques and formal mourning accoutrements.
These are painted in distemper, a tempera technique where the earth pigments are bound with glue size, on 42-inch unbleached canvas-linen strips. Duty marks stamped on the back date them to after 1712: ten years later they are recorded as being at Owlpen.
They were cleaned by Elsie Matley Moore (of The Greyfriars, Worcester, which she left to The National Trust) and removed here from the (higher) east bedroom in 1964, so losing their bottom border. She had made a full-scale facsimile of them for the National Monuments Record during the War, writing an article for Country Life in 1944.
Further copies of the rare Owlpen cloths have been made, using original techniques, for display in historic interiors recently. They may be seen at the Priest’s House Museum, Wimborne, Dorset, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford, and Blakesley Hall, in the West Midlands.
They illustrate naïve and graceful scenes from the life of Joseph and his brothers:-
West wall (left of fireplace):
Joseph in his ‘coat of many colours’ (or ‘long robe with sleeves’) is admired by the senior Jacob (with beard and hat) in the Vale of Hebron.
East wall (opposite door):
To the left, Joseph is lifted out of the pit by his brothers (dressed in smocks); to the right, the Ishmaelites from Gilead, wearing fur-trimmed doublets and hats (the anachronism signifying their merchant status), with a ‘Cotswold’ camel ‘laden with spicery’ by the window.
North wall (behind bed):
Two of Joseph’s brothers sell him to the Midianite traders for 20 pieces of silver, among sheep of their flock (and a sheep dog) in the pasture; note a dove high up to the left.
The background is a stylized arrangement of conical hills, white farmsteads, flowers, foliage, cedars, palms and other trees representing the Holy Land.