Decorating Shakespeare Style

Dear Diva Readers,

top: 5px; float: left; color: white; background: #781300; border: 1px solid darkkhaki; font-size: 60px; line-height: 50px; padding-top: 1px; padding-right: 5px; font-family: times;”>I have a new passion.  Recently I visited William Shakespeare’s birthplace while on holiday in the UK and the interiors struck me. Contrary to popular belief Elizabethan interiors weren’t all whitewashed walls and black beams but rather had colorful exuberant wall coverings! From floor to ceiling in Shakespeare’s time they liked to cover their walls with patterns.

Antiques Diva

We only saw a shift away from the use of wall coverings as Puritanism became more pronounced.  By the middle of the 17th century many of the pieces were destroyed as ‘sins of the flesh’ and the whitewashed walls we tend to think of as Tudor decor became de rigeur, remaining so until the middle of the nineteenth century when William Morris revived interest in these forgotten antique textile arts. His interest resulted in the widespread use of wallpaper today.

While today we tend to choose our wall coverings merely for decorative purposes, in Shakespeare’s time they had more significant meaning. Much could be comminicated by your choice of design. Painted wall coverings were meant to impress – to convey wealth and social standing. The various themes in the patterns – whether figurative, floral, renaissance, geometric or imitation panelling – often had meanings hidden within to show religious ideas, illustrating a rise in one’s social standing or showing one’s intellect or education.

Stratford upon Avon

The choice of color used in the wall covering spoke volumes. The clearer and brighter the colors used the more expensive they were to achieve. The most usual pigments were lime white, lamp black, red and yellow ochres, red lead and indigo.

Today so few painted cloths survive that they are one of the rarest and least studied forms of antique textile arts. While few remain we know through the reading of old wills and testaments how common they were from the Middle Ages through to the 17th century with virtually everyone from kings to yeomen employing them in their homes. In the humbler residences their function went beyond decoration as they served to keep out draughts and to disguise uneven walls. By the 17th century in England imported cloths were overwhelming English ones, with many coming from the Netherlands and Germany. While visiting Sweden with clients earlier this year on an Antiques Diva Tour we found a wide variety of antique painted cloths in the warehouses up north.

 Antiques Diva & Co

As the Bard said, “Fair thee well on your travels, and by date may we meet again!”

The Antiques Diva®

P.S. Should you want to read more about Elizabethan wall coverings House and Gardens did a great article with Melissa White, an artist who specializes in reproducing Elizabethan wall coverings – or visit Melissa’s own website Fairlyte where she describes the process and the reasons behind it in detail.

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Author: Toma Clark Haines

Toma Clark Haines is a Global Tastemaker, Speaker, Writer & Entrepreneur; and founder and CEO The Antiques Diva® & Co, Europe, Asia and America's largest Antiques Sourcing & Touring Company.

  • I am so glad that you liked the interiors of Shakespeare’s Birthpace!

    I had the privilege of working with the eminent furniture historian, the late Victor Chinnery and a wide range of talented craftspeople in researching and furnishing these rooms back in 1999/2000. Following detailed research into the inventories of John Shakespeare’s neighbours (John was William’s father)we were able build up a picture of the likely contents of each room. We went to great lengths in commissioning accurate furnishings and the handwoven textiles were based on original fragments. A field of woad was even planted to provide the dyer with the correct dyestuff!