THE EYES of the world could soon be focused on medieval wall paintings hidden for centuries in Stratford’s Guild Chapel.
A campaign has been launched to conserve and showcase the nationally important artworks in the Church Street chapel which were covered up under the supervision of Shakespeare’s father during the Reformation in the 16th century.
They were uncovered under layers of limewash in the 19th and 20th century – and have been described this week as some of the finest surviving murals in the UK by expert conservators.
Stratford Town Trust, custodian of The Guild Chapel, is now spearheading efforts to protect the paintings and showcase them to the world.
Conservator Tobit Curteis, wall painting expert and advisor to English Heritage and the National Trust, has prepared a report detailing the work needed.
Even in the short term, the cost is estimated to be upwards of £100,000 – with the trust applying for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and also planning a global fund-raising appeal.
Mr Curteis said: “The Guild Chapel wall paintings are an extremely important survival and are of national significance. Not only are they unique in iconographic and art historical terms, but they also provide a visual context for the social and religious attitudes which would have been prevalent at the time of the young William Shakespeare.
“A proposal is now being developed, both to conserve the paintings and, just as importantly, to increase public awareness and engagement, both of the paintings for their own sake and as part of the historical context of Stratford-upon-Avon.”
The wall paintings would originally have been an extremely elaborate and sophisticated scheme, including both religious and allegorical subjects.
Over the chancel arch there is a large and ornate scene of the Doom, with Christ in the central position. The paintings are some of the finest of their kind in the UK.
The chancel walls are understood to have been decorated with ten scenes from the Legend of the Holy Cross, while on the lower north wall of the nave there were scenes of the Dance of Death.
On the south wall records are less clear, but the subject matter appears to have included scenes from the life of Adam as well as a boar hunting scene. On the upper part of the west wall, it is recorded that there were scenes of the murder of Thomas Becket and St George and the Dragon.
The paintings are said to be very sophisticated both in their materials and artistic detail, and are of very great significance. They appear to date to a single period following the remodelling the church at the end of the 15th century.
The painting on the lower south side of the west wall shows an allegory on death, illustrating the transitory nature of earthly glories and the suffering for sins following death, a subject which was popular at the time.
In 1563, the paintings were defaced and limewashed under the supervision of the bard’s father John Shakespeare, who at the time was the chamberlain of the Corporation of Stratford. It appears they were subsequently re-limewashed and painted over a number of times and it was not until 1804 that the majority of the paintings were uncovered.
Few then survived the renovations of the 19th century, but in 1955, when the gallery was removed, those left came to light. Many are protected by the panelling in the nave, and an extensive ‘Memento Mori’, at the base of the tower arch, is behind hinged panels.
The town trust will initially be submitting a planning application for external lighting on The Guild Chapel to highlight its significance in Stratford.
Plans for talks and displays bringing the paintings to life are also being planned, together with opportunities for visitors to see the artwork, much of it currently covered by panelling to protect it.
A free hour long talk will be given by Mr Curteis, at The Guild Chapel on Tuesday December 15. ‘The Hidden Wall Paintings of the Guild Chapel, context and conservation’, starting at 5.30pm.
The bid lottery cash is now being submitted, with the town trust also keen to attract sponsorship, organise fund-raising and launch a legacy appeal.
Trust chief executive Helen Munro is working with the support of the Friends of the Guild Chapel.
She said: “We have a real hidden gem here – it is hugely exciting for the Trust and for Stratford. We want the public to be able to see and appreciate these rare wall paintings and to conserve and protect them.
“We expect to hear the outcome of our lottery application in February. In the meantime we will be looking to install lighting on the outside of the chapel and at planning and producing educational materials.
“We are working to engage volunteers as well, who will be trained to give talks on the paintings to the public. We will also be talking to our local schools about how they can get involved, helping us to bring these paintings back to life, enabling everyone to view them and understand their historic significance.”
Town resident, trustee and well-known motoring journalist Quentin Willson is also passionate about the campaign.
He said: “Overlooking the house in which Shakespeare died and next to the school where he was educated, this 15th century gem has one of the strongest proven connections to the world’s finest playwright. He would have walked past it every day, worshipped there, been appalled – when at the age of nine – he saw it ransacked by Tudor vandals, and in his last days been comforted by the sight of its enduring solidity through his window. The Guild Chapel was an important and familiar landmark in Shakespeare’s life.
“Inside we have some of the best surviving medieval murals in the country painted with the diligence and religious devotion normally reserved for cathedrals. There’s an enormously special and magic aura to the Guild Chapel that hasn’t been lost over the last half-century. It breathes originality, authenticity and simple grandeur. That we haven’t lost its patina and antiquity is a quiet and very wonderful miracle – and we need to showcase that to the world.”
Tim Raistrick, Chairman of the Friends of the Guild Chapel, was equally enthusiastic.
He added: “Since the 1950s the Friends of the Guild Chapel have raised money to help preserve what was then fast becoming a derelict and unloved building. Over £1million in today’s money has been spent by the Friends on transforming the building into one of the town’s most spectacular buildings. However, one of the key remaining items to address is the chapel’s most significant feature – the medieval wall paintings.
“We are thus delighted to be working with the town trust to ensure they are properly conserved and can be fully appreciated for centuries to come.”
A new Guild Chapel website is planned. Visit www.stratfordtowntrust.co.uk for current information.