The Wall Paintings of West Walton

Richard Lithgow and Mark Perry


  Rectangular wall painting between clerestorey windows with alternating rows of flower heads and fleur de lis
Wall paintings (above and below left) on the south side of the
nave after conservation: 13th-century elements include the
representations of tapestry hangings between the clerestory

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin contains large areas of wall paintings on the north and south walls of the nave arcade and clerestory dating from the 13th century. In recent years they had begun to deteriorate severely, with evidence of extensive flaking, delamination and loss of the paint and plaster layers over the entire area, leaving the paintings in a highly unstable condition. In addition, the extensive accumulations of surface dirt and numerous previous repairs – principally in the form of badly discoloured plaster repairs – were visually impairing a full appreciation of this important and undervalued scheme.

West Walton parish church is described by Pevsner as ‘one of the most sumptuous Early English parish churches – not only of Norfolk’. It is a rare surviving example of a church with a detached tower. (The tower is now under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.) Both date from the mid 13th century.

Inside, the building comprises a nave of six bays with two aisles and a chancel. The six-bay arcades are fine examples of Early English work and are composed of circular piers, each with four detached shafts of Purbeck marble with shaft-rings, rising to elegant stiff-leaf capitals. Simon Jenkins describes these capitals as seeming ‘to break free from the whole composition and grow a botanical life of their own. They are sensational, a breath of air in a landscape of so much staid Perpendicular.’

The wall paintings, which decorate the north and south walls of the nave above these arcades, were an integral element of the design of this interior in the Middle Ages. The scheme consisted of trompe l’oeil roundels within the spandrels of the arcade and hanging tapestries within the clerestory panels on the south side, painted over a background of single red masonry line pattern on an off-white limewash ground. In addition to these elements, which are still visible, it was discovered that above this were the remnants of a vine scroll pattern, framed by a red border and further embellished with floral powderings of red rosettes which had survived the re-roofing of the nave in the 15th century.


Since 1996 considerable effort has been made by the parochial church council (PCC) to repair and refurbish the building as a first step to conserving the wall paintings. The first phase of the project, completed in March 2002, involved repairs to the nave roof, rainwater goods and windows, exterior and interior stonework and plaster as well as rewiring and replacement lighting. The second phase of the project – a more detailed condition survey and extensive treatment to the paintings by the Perry Lithgow Partnership – began in July 2004. Both phases were grant-aided by English Heritage, with a substantial contribution by West Walton PCC.


Although a survey of the wall paintings had been carried out as part of the first phase, its scope was limited and no paint or plaster analysis had been commissioned. Therefore, the first step was to photograph all the wall paintings. The photos were then digitised to provide the basis for the graphic record of the pre-treatment condition of the paintings. Following a detailed examination of the wall paintings, information was then hand plotted on the graphic record. This information was presented in multi-layer vector format to identify and categorise the various areas of deterioration, areas requiring treatment and previous interventions.

In addition, paint samples were examined by Catherine Hassall, an independent specialist in paint analysis, and Dr Brian Singer of Northumberland University for pigment identification, cross section analysis and medium analysis. The results for the lower decoration were available prior to the start of on-site works, allowing the Perry Lithgow Partnership to devise appropriate methods and materials for the remedial interventions. Further samples of paint and plaster were taken during the on-site work, when the clerestory paintings became accessible. (Plaster samples were taken principally to identify any salts present, as their source can usually be deduced from their chemical constituents.)

Work on site commenced with the pre-treatment condition survey followed by the required remedial interventions identified in the survey. Conservation treatments were carried out to all areas of plaster on the north and south nave walls from arcade capital level to the wall plate in the clerestory. The nave piers were not included in the scope of this work.


  Roundel design in red and yellow based on a sexfoil with cusps ending in fleurs-de-lis
  A reconstruction of one of the roundel designs from the 13th century

From the sequence of layers of plaster and paint (limewash and oil paint), and the identification of key pigments by paint analysis (blue verditer, for example, was available in the 17th century but not in the 13th), it was possible to piece together most of the history of the wall paintings. As a result it is now believed that the 13th-century decoration, which was painted with a wash of earth pigments in lime white onto a limewash ground, originally incorporated all the architectural features of the nave, including the trompe l’oeil hangings and roundels.

This scheme was covered over with limewash at some later date, the plasterwork was repaired, and decorated in the 17th century in oil-based paints. At some later point all the additions were crudely stripped off from a large proportion of the nave. As a result, the medieval hanging tapestries were again visible in the mid 19th century when drawings of them appeared in the publication Gothic Ornament by JR Collings (1848). The scars left by the tools used to uncover the works are still visible on all the surfaces affected.

The remains of the original 13th-century roundels survive in the ‘half’ spandrels at the east end, which were never obscured by later layers. The designs appear to be intended to resemble classic 13th-century rose windows and contain a series of designs based on a sexfoil, mostly with cusps ending in large fleurs-de-lis and outlined with red and yellow lines and a band of black dots. Remains of this scheme can be seen beneath the later roundels throughout the nave.


Both the 17th- and 18th- century schemes which are superimposed on the roundels of the original scheme show ten of the Tribes of Israel. Each roundel has a central shield on which is painted an emblem, with the Tribe’s name above and the relevant verse from Genesis below, all within a circular foliate border. Traces of the first of these schemes show through the later ones and each is a reworking, with minor variations, of its predecessor, although the sequence has often been altered.

There is no evidence that the 18th-century decoration extended beyond the roundels, although the edges of the roundels appear also to have been trimmed. Identification of the 18th-century scheme was aided by the original use of Prussian blue in this scheme, a pigment which was available in the 18th but not in the 17th century.

The physical evidence suggests that the black line masonry pattern found on the north arcade spandrels and clerestory and the south clerestory recesses may, in part at least, date from the 17th-century intervention.

There are extensive remains of painted decoration on the nave piers, which appear to depict a type of trompe l’oeil marbling effect. However, this was outside the scope of the current project and has not been investigated.


  Close up of roundel showing large crack and widespread paint loss
  A detail of one of the roundels showing extensive plaster loss and delamination: the lines of the 13th-century roundel below are clearly visible in areas of paint loss

Repairs carried out in 1908 were recorded by the SPAB for that year, during which the original 13th-century work was ‘cleaned and treated with a finely prepared size’ (SPAB 31st Annual Report, 1908). From the current investigation it now appears that the covering limewash and later painted decoration was removed from the surviving 13th-century scheme but retained on the repair plaster. Plaster repairs were then made with a graded aggregate but gritty, hard lime based plaster and a thin limewash was applied to all previous and new plaster repairs as well as all surfaces of the clerestory recesses and wall areas above the clerestory hood mouldings. This limewash had discoloured severely and now appeared dark yellow, disfiguring the scheme.


Over the years the wall paintings at West Walton had been scarred by over-painting and subsequent stripping, by poor repairs, by structural movement, salt movement (from bird and bat droppings as well as from the substrate) and by damp, all of which have left their mark indelibly on their surface. The paintings have now been carefully cleaned to remove the most harmful effects of the dirt (for example, from the ratchet effect of dirt falling behind flaking surfaces). The plaster and paint surfaces have been consolidated to stabilise them and their environment has been significantly improved by reducing the amount of moisture entering the fabric. However, no attempt has been made to replicate or restore their original or later appearance. In this way they will continue to provide a spectacular insight into the appearance of the church in the Middle Ages, and its changing face over six centuries.



Historic Churches, 2005


RICHARD LITHGOW and MARK PERRY are conservators and partners of The Perry Lithgow Partnership in Oxfordshire.


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