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Investigations carried out by conservation experts from Historic Royal Palaces uncover lost 17th Century wall paintings
The Banqueting House on Whitehall, the only surviving building from the lost palace of Whitehall, is famous for its opulently painted ceiling by Peter Paul Rubens. However, beneath the stunning ceiling is an often-overlooked wall painting scheme, forming part of the early decor in the majestic main hall, designed by the famous English architect, Inigo Jones.
Historic Royal Palaces’ conservation specialists have painstakingly uncovered small ‘windows’ in the existing wall paintings, to examine these original works. Carefully removing individual paint layers using scalpels, a steady hand, magnifying lenses, and an awful lot of patience; the team have revealed the original 17th century scheme.
The newly discovered murals are just beneath the ceiling, in between ornately carved and gilt columns. They depict classical-style dramatic masks connected by ribbons tied into bows and flanked by festoons of fruit and foliage. The design matches carved decoration at the same level on the outside of the building and reflects the original function of the Banqueting House, as a venue for elaborate theatrical performances, known as Masques.
Architect Christopher Wren recorded the wall paintings in one of his drawings in the later 16th century. The murals were likely painted sometime between 1622 - 1637. By 1728-32, artist William Kent was tasked with restoring the ‘masks, festoons and other ornaments painted all around the room in yellow and heightened with gold’ at the same time as restoring the Rubens paintings. Later, architects John Soane and Robert Smirke carried out a major restoration of the whole building in the 1830s and the murals were completely repainted at this point. Fast forward to the mid-20th century, and the masks and festoons were ‘touched up’ again, and painted around with thickly applied paint
The very early, original masks and festoons were still surviving beneath all the later repaints, revealing artwork that were likely to have been painted under the direction of Inigo Jones himself. More uncovering revealed that the original scheme was quite intact and was positioned slightly differently than the later restorations. It was beautifully painted in yellow and brown glazes, with details picked out in gold leaf, on a cool grey background. On top of this paint layer was the Victorian scheme – fluently painted but spoiled by later restorations.
Jane Spooner, Head Buildings Curator Historic Royal Palaces, said: “It’s incredible after everything the Banqueting House has witnessed over the last four centuries, including several fires and the Blitz, that these original painting schemes have survived. To be able to see the quality of the craftmanship and know we are seeing the original work is really quite something. There was a wonderful moment when we revealed a beautifully painted eye and it was peering back at us, centuries after it had been covered up. The knowledge we have acquired from this discovery has already helped to inform us of the original colour schemes and given us a sense of what it must have looked like in all its magnificence in the 17th-century.”
The paintings have been carefully recorded and the research undertaken will help to guide the charity on how to best care for the wall paintings in the future.
Notes to editors
For more information please contact Cat Steventon in the Historic Royal Palaces Press Office [email protected] or 020 3166 6302
Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle and Gardens. We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built. We raise all our own funds and depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, sponsors and volunteers. With the exception of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, these palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Historic Royal Palaces cares for Hillsborough Castle and Gardens under a separate contract with the Northern Ireland Office. Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk