Bayleaf Farmhouse is a late medieval open-hall house dating from the early 15th and early 16th centuries. It was moved to the museum in 1968 and opened as an exhibit in 1972.
The house was furnished with replica pieces in the late 1980s to represent a domestic interior as it may have been around 1540. At that time it was provided with a woven wool and silk damask cloth to hang behind the table at the upper end of the hall which was copied from a surviving sixteenth-century fragment.
Over the years the cloth faded and deteriorated until it reached a state where it could not be repaired. In July this year we replaced it with a new painted cloth commissioned from Hastings-based artist, Melissa White
Painted cloths were a common form of decoration in the sixteenth century. Along with other types of textile hangings, they served both as a form of decoration and insulation. Unlike tapestries, which were only found in the houses of the wealthy, painted cloths were common even in lower status dwellings.
They were painted in bright colours and included large-scale figurative, narrative and ornamental decoration. In his Description of England (1577) William Harrison described how ‘the walls of our houses on the inner sides … be either hanged with tapestry, arras work, or painted cloths, wherein either diverse histories, or herbs, beasts, knots, and suchlike are stained … whereby the rooms are not a little commended, made warm, and much more close than otherwise they would be’.
In London painted cloths and wall paintings were produced by the Painter-Stainers’ Company but we know that there were also painters working in the provinces.
Very few painted cloths survive because of the thin and perishable nature of the linen so we turned instead to evidence from wall paintings. There is a higher survival rate for these but many of the surviving schemes are now fragmentary or are unsuitable in other ways (for example, because the people depicted in them are wearing clothing from a later date).
After considering a number of different examples we selected a scheme surviving in Althrey Hall in Flintshire, Wales, which is largely intact and thought to have been created around 1550 – close to the 1540 date that Bayleaf is interpreted to.
The scheme is of bold alternate stripes, one featuring a pomegranate motif and one featuring rosettes in a diamond trellis. At the top of the scheme forming a border are large open pomegranates interspersed with brown acanthus leaves with black veins.
To create the cloth Melissa stretched two pieces of medium-weight unbleached canvas onto separate frames and primed them with rabbit-skin glue which tightens the canvas and provides a smooth surface for the paint to adhere to.
The scheme was painted using traditional pigments – red and yellow ochre, umber, black or ‘blacking’ and white or ‘whiting’ – all of which were cheap and readily available. Once the cloth was finished Melissa removed the two sections from the frame and hand-stitched them together.
The painted cloth project was initiated and managed by the museum’s social historian, Dr Danae Tankard. A short film funded by the University of Kent documents the cloth’s creation and provides more detail about the historic context. The film can be viewed here.