16th April 2023
A discovery and a puzzle
A few of us were invited recently to see the 17th century wall paintings unveiled in a tiny first floor flat on Micklegate.
After moving in, Luke Budworth and his partner Hazel had been doing a bit of redecorating and they were shocked, on removing some plasterboard, to find the remains of these extraordinary paintings, high up on the wall around their living room.
Luke Budworth and his dog Leonard with History Group Chair, Philip Newton
It was quite an experience for us, looking at a feature several centuries old in a Micklegate flat, predating even the Great Fire of London. Contrary to the myriad press features which heralded this startling discovery, the paintings had actually been revealed back in 1998, when the upper floors of this building at 42-48 Micklegate were being developed into flats.
Seven paintings were found then, forming a frieze made up of oval cartouches separated by columns, positioned high on two adjacent walls. Each cartouche contained an allegorical or symbolic image, accompanied by three lines of text. Experts believe that the paintings may have originally extended around all four walls of a room. To protect them from environmental damage they had been recovered quite quickly in 1998, but now half of the paintings have been uncovered again. They are said to be of national significance, as domestic wall paintings were rare in York in the 17th century.
The subjects are quite difficult to make out without expert interpretation, as they are in a state of disrepair, but they feature images and text from Quarles’s Emblemes, published in 1635. To take one example, this image shows a figure trapped in a bird cage, with a winged figure alongside placing a key in the door to release the prisoner.
The text below is:
Paul's midnight voice prevail’d; his musicks thunder
Unhing’d the prison doores; split bolts in sunder:
And sitst thou here, and hang’st the feeble wing?
And whin’st to be enlarg’d? Soule, learne to sing.
Corresponding image courtesy of Wikimedia from 1824 edition of Quarles Emblemes
It is a bit of a puzzle. The style of the paintings suggests they were painted no later than the third quarter of the 17th century. However the current building was constructed in the mid-18th century. The explanation is that this was almost certainly a renovation of an earlier domestic building, with a new frontage, which sadly cuts into the paintings at the right hand end.
The building (housing nos. 42, 44, 46 and 48 Micklegate) stands opposite St. Martin's Lane, and includes an early 18th century back wing, but the main part was erected in 1747. It had been acquired from Thomas Mell, merchant, by Thruscross Topham, and then in 1774 it was sold to Thomas England, butter factor, who, until his bankruptcy in 1781, lived in one house; the other occupied to his death in 1770 by George Eskrick, haberdasher, Lord Mayor in 1739 and 1747. In 1791 the whole property belonged to George Beal, butter factor. For about 10 years from 1823 a girls' boarding school, kept by Miss Patience Nicholson, occupied No. 48.
Image courtesy of artist Ronnie Cruwys. Her website Drawing the Detail features many of our local streets
As is often the case, tracking uses of a building over modern times can be tricky too, with numbering changes. No. 42 was recorded as no. 88 until the early 20th century, but we do know that the ground floor here housed fruiterers between 1891 and the 1960s at least. It is now Cafe 42. There were two other retail shops on the ground floor of this building, in the premises now occupied by Oxfam.
The building to the right of this (now part of David Wilson Hairdressing) was formerly the Blue Bell Inn, later The Bell, one of many pubs on Micklegate. It dates from the late 18th century, until it closed in 1937.
There are plans now to carry out expert recording and conservation on the paintings. Historic England have presented the couple with a full size high resolution reproduction of the paintings, to mount over the originals.
Hugh Adlington, David Griffith and Tara Hamling, Beyond the Page: Quarles's Emblemes, Wall-Paintings, and Godly Interiors in Seventeenth-Century York, Huntington Library Quarterly , Vol. 78, No. 3 (Autumn 2015), pp. 521-551, Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hlq.2015.78.3.521