Mont Orgueil wall paintings

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This article by Margaret Finlayson was first published in the 2001 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Mter the excavation of the floor of the room (Part 1, Soc. Jers. Bull., 1997), attention was turned to the traces of painted decoration on the walls. This is a record of the examination made by the late Dr Clive Rouse, M.B.E., M.A., ES.A., the procedures carried out on his recommendation and the photographic record made at that time (colour plates 1-4). Also published for the first time are the photographs taken in 1928 by Emile Guiton (black and white photographs 1- 6). The study of these photographs and the sketches made from them, provide strong evidence that the room was used as a Chamber Chapel within the period between the late 15th and the late 16th centuries. In 1980, Dr Rouse was invited to examine the walls and he reported as follows: I visited Mont Orgueil Castle on the 1st of July, 1980 and made a careful inspection of traces of wall painting in the lower room of Prynne's Tower in the Keep. Mrs Margaret Finlaison and the Castle Custodian were present. Painting was visible on two walls of the room in association with window recesses. All the painting was in black and white with some red, and appeared to be purely decorative, with no traces of figures, and I was not able to identify the shield of St George mentioned to me in correspondence. On the walls and window splays on the left of the entrance door [N.W wall and alcove], there was some kind of pattern in black, a circular motif and what appeared to be a frame. Above the inner arch of the deeply splayed window were two ogee lines in black, imitating the shape of stone windows in some of the older Jersey houses. The splays had a band of black over red with a chevron or diamond pattern. Above the window opening were red chevrons, or perhaps part of a trellis design. On the flanking wall, above the window opening [N.E. shelf] were ogee black lines as in the other window, curved over the shoulder of the arch, with zigzag below. There were traces of red and black pigment occurring haphazardly on both walls. The nature of the painting suggests a late 15th century date, or even later, in the early years of the 16th century before the room was filled in.

The room was very damp, with ill-fitting doors and subject to the salt-laden sea winds. The plaster was in poor condition. It was composed of a coarse mixture of lime and sea gravel, and there were many areas where exfoliation of salts was occurring. Much of the plaster was disintegrating and in urgent need of repair if any traces of painting on it were to be saved. In view of the very sketchy nature of the remains, and the poor condition of the plaster, I did not feel that any very elaborate steps needed be taken, or much time and money spent on an attempt at conservation. Nevertheless, in view of the rarity of painting of this kind, some effort might be made to halt further deterioration, and above all, a full record should be made. In conclusion I should like to commend the keen observation of those concerned in spotting these slender remains and the desire to record and if possible save some part of them. Recording Procedures The following recommendations made by Clive Rouse were carried out with the photo¬grapher Robin Briault and an assistant. 1. The walls were very lightly and carefully dusted with a soft brush. 2. The painted areas were sprayed with plain water from a hand operated mist spray, and the walls then photographed, taking care that any artificial lighting was directed straight onto the walls, to avoid the shadows caused on an uneven surface with oblique light. He did not think that infra-red photography would be helpful. 3. As a further step, the walls were examined after dark under ultra-violet light. This was to see if the black pigment used was a lamp-black, or even a charcoal black when some residue might be left in the plaster even where the pigment had gone. This can often give a reaction and fluorescence under ultra-violet light. 4. Sketches of the designs were made from these photographs. The examination of the four walls after dark, under ultra-violet light did not produce any noticeable fluorescence. No trace of paint could be found on the S.E. or S.W walls which were the most exposed to the salt winds and wet. Little plaster remained here and none was mentioned in 1928. The foundation for the paint was a lime wash over coarse gravel plaster and today the colours appear limited to black and red. In 1928, they were described as ' lively', but not specified. In a number of places, colour survives where the lime coating has gone because it had penetrated the plaster beneath. In addition, in at least one place, lines remain incised in the plaster marking out the design to be followed. Patching with a more modern plaster is in most cases, likely to date from repairs done by Public Works after the digging out of the room in the 1920s. There is no doubt that great damage to the plaster took place during both the infilling and the digging out of the room, but perhaps the most destruction has been caused by long term dampness and sea salts. An interpretation of the paintings from a study of the colour photographs taken in 1980 and the black and white photographs by Emile Guiton taken in 1928 is as follows:-


An enormous loss of detail had occurred between the making of the two photographic records and this description depends heavily upon the one from 1928. THE DECORATION DISCERNABLE COMPRISED THREE MAIN ELEMENTS. 1. The shield and its embelishments in the alcove of the N.W wall. 2. A geometric or trellis pattern on the surround of the shelf in the N.E. wall. 3. The stylised motif of curtains along both these walls with shorter curtains within the N.W alcove and under and also possibly within the N.E. shelf. THE N.W ALCOVE (1). Traces of a shield bearing the cross of St George is at the CENTRE BACK (see plans 1, 3a and 5). It is outlined in black and the cross infilled with red (see photograph 4 and the coloured plates). ABOVE THE SHIELD are the two lines of an ogee in black (plan 3b) and on the right hand side this can be seen to continue as a straight line (plan 4) down to the shelf. Above this again, are the remains of another double black line of a narrower ogee (plans 3c and 5). Centred on the edge of the wall ABOVE THE ALCOVE is one side of a flame like motif in red (plan 5). On both the OUTER SPLAYS of the alcove is a stylised pattern of pleated curtains suspended on poles by cords knotted to rings (plans 3e and 5). On the right hand side of the back wall and BESIDE THE SHIELD are faint traces of another shorter curtain (plans 3f and 5). These all appear as outlines in black, but on the left hand splay there are still some traces of red along the top edge of the curtain, while half way down its length, some faint areas of both black and red give clues to an ornate patterning which might have once decorated it. On the SHELF DROP inside the alcove are other traces of motifs (plans 3g and 5). Visible only on the earlier black and white photograph, their interpretation is presently open to speculation. THE N.E. SHELF (2). Apart from the curtain BELOW THE SHELF mentioned below, there is the remains of a chevron or trellis pattern on the OUTSIDE FRAME of the recess at the top right hand side (plan 4i). This is delineated in black with traces of red infill. Nothing can be seen of the ogee lines mentioned by Clive Rouse and there probably is some confusion here with the second ogee in the first alcove. THE CURTAINS ON THE WALLS (3). Close examination of the black and white photographs shows that what was thought to be bands of geometric patterning, is instead the cords and rings of curtains hanging from poles mostly in regular gathers or pleats. More detail has now become apparent -in the knotting of the cords to the rings and the way in which they hang on the poles. These curtains, painted in black outline can be seen to clothe both the N.W and N.E. walls as far as the N.E. shelf and to continue below it (plan 5). On the N.W wall by the alcove the pole joined another feature. This appears as the outline of a curtain, draped above the alcove and knotted back at the top edge, but it can only be observed on the left hand side (plans 3h and 5).


Interpretation and the future All the stylistic evidence from the painting and the archaeology of the room shows that the walls were decorated sometime during the last two decades of the 15th century as part of the overall refurbishment, when a blocked up medieval arrowslit became the N.W alcove, the blocked guardrobe the N.E. shelf, and the floor and shelves were paved with slate (Part 1, Soc. Jers. Bull., 1997). There are three specific features which suggest an ecclesiastical use of the room. 1. The covering of the walls with painted representations of curtains, a custom which is characteristic of much church wallpainting. 2. The red flame like emblem centred above the main decorated recess which seems to represent the eternal flame which burns before an altar. 3. Holes within each side of the walls of the shelf recess either to support a rod for a curtain or some other screen which could have created a space for the retention of the sacrament. Taken individually, these items provide slight evidence, but together they carry greater conviction. As part of the present archaeological work at the castle, Conservator Diane Gibbs is looking at some of these delicate remnants and we are confident that, despite their extremely advanced state of decay, much more detail remains to be revealed, including the patterns on the curtains. We look forward to her interpretation and discoveries.

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