Regency Bicentennial:   Murals in the Painted Chamber Revealed

The Painted Chamber was part of the complex of the Palace of Westminster in London. Though the chamber itself had been known for centuries, until the turn of the nineteenth century, the fact that the walls were covered with a series of murals depicting Biblical stories had long been lost to human memory, despite the name of the room. However, in the last year of the Regency, those murals were once again revealed. Fortunately, they were then recorded in a series of drawings and paintings, since the Painted Chamber itself was ravaged by fire in the autumn of 1834.

The revelation and recording of the murals in the Painted Chamber . . .

The Painted Chamber was part of the medieval Palace of Westminster. That part of the palace was built by the Norman King, Henry III, reportedly on the site of the room in which the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor, had died, in 1066. The chamber was a long, narrow room which Henry III sometimes as a state reception room or audience chamber. But he used it most often as a private apartment, for which reason it became known as the King’s Chamber during his lifetime. During Henry’s reign, a state bed was set up at the north end of the room. A nearly life-size painting of the Coronation of Edward the Confessor adorned the wall over the great bed. Henry III was a very pious man, who had adopted Edward the Confessor as his personal saint.

King Henry III commissioned a cycle of mural paintings for his chamber, with the work probably beginning about 1263. The painting of the Coronation of Edward the Confessor was flanked by life-size portraits of St. John and St. Edward, to stand guard at either side of the head of the king’s bed. In addition, images of the Triumphant Virtues were painted in the splays of the window embrasures. It is believed by most scholars that that was the extent of the work commissioned by Henry III, who died in 1272. Almost twenty years later, Henry’s eldest son, who had become King Edward I, commissioned a further cycle of wall murals with religious themes to be painted on the walls of what would then come to be known as The Painted Chamber.

The murals painted for King Edward I may have been influenced by his experience during the Crusades, and his hopes to return to fight in the Holy Land once again in the decades which followed. However, the work was not actually commissioned until about 1292. Unlike the paintings which had been commissioned by his father, the murals painted for King Edward I, a soldier king, were all derived from stories in the Old Testament, and many of them depicted war-like images. One cycle was based on the life of Judas Maccabeus, who lead a revolt against what he considered to be pagan peoples. The other cycles are believed to have been inspired by stories in 2 Kings and the Book of Judges. These new murals were laid out in multiple bands on the east, west, and south walls of the chamber, in order to show the significant events from each of the Biblical stories. These paintings were executed in strong, bright colors, with a liberal use of gilt accents. The paintings were said to " . . . arrest the beholder with the greatest royal magnificence."

Through most of the Middle Ages, the Painted Chamber was well-maintained and was considered a grand and important feature of the Westminster Palace complex. In fact, it was thought to be one of the most sumptuous and significant painted state rooms in all of medieval Europe. Many of the dignitaries who visited London were given a tour of the famous Painted Chamber for several decades. However, during the reign of King Edward IV, the paintings were covered with wainscoting and the room was hung with tapestries depicting the Trojan War. From that time, the paintings in the Painted Chamber were gradually forgotten, despite the fact that the room retained its name. As it happened, the fact that the mural paintings had been covered over helped to protect them through the succeeding years. English kings continued to reside in Westminster Palace and to use the Painted Chamber as a state reception and audience room for another half century, most of them totally ignorant of what lay beneath the tapestries and wainscotting.

The use of the chamber, and the complex, changed after 1512, when a fire ravaged part of Westminster Palace. After the fire, the current king, Henry VIII, ceased to use Westminster as a royal London residence, in favor of Whitehall Palace. Instead, once repairs were made, the complex was given over to the use of the government, particularly, Parliament, a governmental body which had begun to develop during the reign of King Henry III. Fortunately, the Painted Chamber was not seriously damaged during the fire of 1512. The wainscoting had protected the wall murals, though by that time, it is not clear how many people even remembered they were there. At some time after that, the walls were whitewashed and covered with blue paper. Once the king relinquished Westminster as his London residence, the grand room became the location of many important governmental ceremonies, especially the State Opening of Parliament.

When Westminster Palace became a government facility, the House of Lords took their seats in the former Queen’s Chamber. Later in the sixteenth century, the House of Commons sat in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel. Because it was such a large room and it was conveniently adjacent, the Painted Chamber was used when the Houses of Lords and Commons were meeting in joint session. In addition, the Painted Chamber was the site of the trial of King Charles I, and, after he was convicted, his death warrant was signed in that same room. Thirty-six years later, the body of his son, King Charles II, would lie in state in the Painted Chamber the night before his burial in Westminster Abbey. Over a century later, the bodies of both William Pitt the Elder, and William Pitt the Younger, in their turn, lay in state in that same chamber prior to their burial. Through the end of the eighteenth century, the Painted Chamber continued to be used for the State Opening of Parliament, and other significant state ceremonies. Things began to change at the turn of the nineteenth century.

In 1800, the Acts of Union were ratified by both the English and Irish Parliaments, by virtue of which, the two governing bodies were to merge into one. By the terms of the Acts, the joint Parliament was to meet in London, at Westminster Palace. Even though not all of the Irish Members of Parliament would be seated in the new united Parliament, there were still many more members to be seated than there had been prior to the Union. The numbers were even higher for the House of Commons than for the House of Lords, which relocated to the White Chamber in 1801. By 1800, the chamber used by the House of Commons was already overcrowded. That meant that something would have to be done to accommodate the new Irish members, who numbered over one hundred. The idea of remodelling all or part of the Painted Chamber, which was parallel to the former St. Stephen’s Chapel, into a space to house the new united House of Commons, was discussed by that body during the 1800 session.

As it happened, other arrangements were made to expand the House of Commons, which did not require remodelling the Painted Chamber. However, that was not before some exploratory work began in the Painted Chamber. During that work, a few of the wall paintings were partially uncovered. But since it had been determined that the chamber was not to be used for the House of Commons, the paintings were covered again. By early 1819, plans had begun to make a series of repairs in the Painted Chamber. The plans took some time to come to fruition, but by the late summer, work was underway. During the course of this repair work, large sections the mural paintings were revealed. As the work proceeded, it was decided to completely uncover those ancient paintings. Not long after that, reports began to appear in some of the London newspapers about these ancient paintings which had been unseen for more than three centuries.

At least a few of the stories in those newspapers made their way to the towns of Norfolk and Suffolk. In those East Anglia counties, Charles Stothard was hard at work, making drawings of some English monuments which he intended to include in his upcoming work, The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain. When Stothard read of the ancient mural paintings which had been uncovered, he rushed back to London in the hope of being able to record them with his pencil and brush. Fortunately, the Society of Antiquaries of London, which employed him as a historical draughtsman, were just as eager to see these medieval paintings recorded and commissioned him to do the work. As it happened, this new commission would be somewhat similar to work he had previously done for the Society, when he made detailed drawings and watercolor paintings of the Bayeux Tapestry, which he had completed the previous year. The murals in the Painted Chamber, like the Bayeux Tapestry, were designed in long bands which ran around the walls of the room. The various scenes from the Biblical stories were laid out much like a filmstrip, in order to show all of the most pertinent events from the stories. The bands near the ceiling were wider than those lower on the wall, in order to make the figures larger, so that they could be seen clearly from below. The bands which were at eye-level were narrower, since the figures and the scenes could be drawn on a smaller scale and still be easily visible to the viewer. There were six bands of paintings running around the walls of the chamber.

Despite the fact that the repair work and the removal of the old wainscot, paper and whitewash in the Painted Chamber was still in progress, Charles Stothard got to work there by early September of 1819. He ignored the dust and din of the work going on around him, and focused on capturing the gloriously colored mural paintings which had been revealed. As ever, fearless and determined in the pursuit of his commission, Stothard spent hours on rickety scaffolding with pencil and paper, carefully recording all of the murals which were visible. The original murals had been painted in tempera, and finished with a heavy varnish that had helped to protect them. However, age, and the heat from the various fires at Westminster Palace had done some damage, so there were sections missing from nearly all of the paintings. Nevertheless, since the scaffolding in the Painted Chamber gave him the opportunity to get very close to the surface of the paintings, he was able to capture any of the underlying design which had survived, even if the painted surface itself was lost. This allowed Stothard to record the details of the paintings to the greatest extent possible.

Once he had completed his drawings, Stothard used them to make watercolor paintings, doing his best to capture the colors of the murals as accurately as possible. In addition, he also began to research the paintings, and the painter who executed them, by going through the available records of Westminster Palace for the period during which the paintings were completed. He also studied his own drawings and paintings in order to try to explain some of the peculiarities which he noted in both the architecture and the costumes which they depicted. Stothard had plans to write a paper on the murals, to be published along with his watercolors in one of the publications of the Society of Antiquaries. Sadly, Charles Stothard was killed in a fall from a tall ladder from which he was working in a church in Devon, in May of 1821. He never completed his research paper on the murals in the Painted Chamber. However, his drawings did survive and were eventually published in an edition of Vetusta Monumenta, the Society’s primary publication. The original drawing and paintings are still in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries.

Fortunately for posterity, Charles Stothard was not the only one to record the murals in the Painted Chamber in 1819. The Clerk of the Works at Westminster Palace, Thomas Crofton Croker, also made a series of detailed watercolor paintings of the murals. These paintings are now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Ashmolean Museum. Stothard’s drawings are more precise and assured, but Croker’s color palette is much richer. As it turned out, Stothard’s and Croker’s drawings and paintings are now all that remains of the magnificent medieval mural paintings which once adorned the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace.

Once the repairs in the Painted Chamber were completed, in early 1820, the walls, and the mural paintings on them, were plastered over. The chamber was redecorated and refitted to house the Court of Claims. Sadly, much of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed in a catastrophic fire which broke out on 16 October 1834. The Painted Chamber was gutted by that fire. It was said that it was "perhaps the greatest artistic treasure" lost in that terrible conflagration. Some of the wood from the old roof was salvaged and used to make various souvenirs. The thick medieval walls of the chamber survived intact, so the room was given a new roof and refurbished to serve as the House of Lords, until 1847. The entire structure was finally demolished in 1851.

Dear Regency Authors, might one or more of your characters in an upcoming romance have occasion to visit the Painted Chamber at the Palace of Westminster in the late summer or fall of 1819? Will they watch Charles Stothard at work, or might one of your characters be working as his assistant? Will you include Charles Stothard as an historical character in your story? Then again, could it be that your hero is a member of the Society of Antiquaries in London, and is a staunch supporter of Stothard’s work, while other member are less enthusiastic? Or, could your heroine be a friend of Charles Stothard’s beloved wife, Eliza. Perhaps the two ladies might go to the Painted Chamber to see the mural paintings for themselves? Who else might they encounter while they are there? How else might the newly revealed mural paintings in the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace add a touch of historical embellishment to a new Regency romance

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Murals in the Painted Chamber Revealed

  1. this is one I shall have to think of very carefully. I will be writing about Peterloo with my Bow St Runner and his lady, but it would be easy enough to have a novella and consider, say, tensions amongst artistic temperaments in assistants.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That may be a bit of a stretch. I could not find that very many people were allowed in to see the Painted Chamber. It was essentially a construction zone in the last months of 1819. Workers were making repairs while others were uncovering the wall murals, so it was loud and probably dusty, too.

      Charles Stothard did have permission to be there. Whenever possible, his wife, Eliza, assisted him. But she was probably working on her first book at this time, which meant he may have had to find someone else, possibly a young fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. But he would not have had multiple assistants, just one to fetch and carry for him, while he was up on the scaffolding. If they started trying to tell him how to work, he would probably have sent them packing.

      Croker, who was Clerk of the Works at Westminster, seems to have just taken it upon himself to make copies of the paintings in his spare time. It is unlikely he had an assistant, though he could have pressed one of the construction workers into service for the purpose.

      Hope that helps to clarify.



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