For years, two figures painted on a wall and concealed behind a cupboard at the former home of William Morris were believed to have been the work of a single artist.
Now, major conservation work has uncovered an entire wall painting which experts believe is by William Morris and friends, all of whom were important Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Red House in Kent, was the home of Morris between 1860 and 1865. Regular visitors were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown. At different times, the friends helped Morris to decorate walls, ceilings and items of furniture at the house with colourful wall paintings and decorative patterns inspired by their love of the medieval past.
After Morris left Red House, until the National Trust acquired it in 2003, it remained in private ownership. As tastes changed, much of his original decoration was covered over with panelling, wallpaper or paint.
The bedroom wall painting had been hidden for years behind a fitted wardrobe and covered with wallpaper and until this year only two indistinct figures were visible. Following generous funding, the Trust has been able to undertake conservation which has uncovered the complete painting, measuring six feet by eight feet.
The painting, designed for what had been Morris and his wife Jane’s bedroom, depicts Biblical figures: Adam and Eve (with the serpent), Noah (holding a miniature ark), Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder) and is designed to resemble a hanging tapestry with the illusion of folds.
It is not known for certain which artist painted which figure, and further research and analysis will be undertaken. Experts have based their initial thoughts on the styles of each artist along with other details known about their connections to Morris, to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, and Red House at that time.
Jan Marsh, author and President of the William Morris Society said: “The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”
Lines of faded and incomplete text were also uncovered at the bottom of the painting. For help in identifying the words, Red House staff put out an image on Twitter and Facebook. Within a day, the text had been identified as lines from Genesis 30:6.
James Breslin, House Manager at Red House said: “The early years at Red House were a flowering of ideas and creativity for Morris, who encouraged his friends to help him design a home uniquely medieval in feel. To uncover such a remarkable example of this early decoration has been so exciting.
“As we uncover more and more of those original schemes, we have been delighted that our visitors today have been able to share in these discoveries, and see the conservation in action, every step of the way.”
The conservation of the bedroom wall painting was undertaken over a period of two months by a team of specialist wall painting conservators led by Tobit Curteis. The work involved painstaking removal of layers of wallpaper and overpaint to avoid damaging the historic painting underneath. The conservators carefully stabilised damaged areas of the painting and areas of loss were retouched so that the original details are now clearly visible.
Funding for the conservation was received from Wolfson Foundation, a private donor and Trust funds which have brought these layers of Red House, and its exciting decoration, back to life.