Earlier this week I learnt from Waldemar Januszczak’s latest series on the Renaissance that the reason for the gleaming white marble used in much of the great sculpture of the period (think Michelangelo’s David and his Pieta) is nothing more than a simple error on the part of the artists of the day. Seeking inspiration from the works of antiquity they studied surviving Greek and Roman statuary which had survived burial for centuries, the proud muscular figures of white stone.
Januszczak suggests that these figures were originally painted and that the only reason they were now white was because they paint had degraded and disappeared with the passage of time. Classical statuary was therefore assumed to be white and so the Renaissance copied this.
I mention this because it relates to two of the gems I discovered at Canons Ashby House once I went up stairs. Though the drawing-room has a number of notable features, once is dominant; a truly magnificent Jacobean plaster ceiling. King James I, Elizabeth’s successor, was also King of Scotland, and this is reflected in the thistle decorations that are part of the plasterwork. There is a problem though; all that plaster adds a significant weight to the ceiling, weight that the walls were never designed to bear. If you look to the fireplace in the library shot from yesterday’s post you can see the distortions resulting from walls bowing to accommodate that load.
The volunteer who was working in the room told us that originally the whole ceiling had been coloured, in the same way that only the coat of arms is now. Who decided to paint it white and when they did it was not part of her brief. Personally I think the room would have been garish with so much colour; the texture of the ceiling is easily discernible due to the shadows created by the strapwork. There was originally a large bay window to this room which would have ensured plenty of light, so brightening the room seems an unlikely motivation.
The next room revealed another feature that had long been hidden behind wooden panelling; Elizabethan decoration in the form of illustrations etched into grey plaster and below that brightly coloured geometric designs that had been hidden for generations.
Down the back stairs to the servant’s quarters reveals another room that had once been painted white until an accidental chip revealed the colour beneath and a room of painted panels bearing heraldic symbols. This room may have been whitened to reflect more light around as the brown is naturally quite dark, but at what cost? What’s more a small cupboard set into one of the panels also contains an entrance to a secret chamber with what seem to be masonic decorations (though sadly I didn’t learn of this until after my visit.
Finally I exited through the kitchen, that staple of all great houses with its range burning 24 hours a day to provide food and hot water. Nothing remarkable there until you look at the floor and see how worn and uneven it is – more so than you might expect from even four centuries of usage. The explanation is that it originated at that 13th century priory where our Canons Ashby story began.