The wainscotting of the walls of rooms, in secular houses, with wood, appears to be an innovation of the later years of the fifteenth century. It is difficult to date any woodwork other than by its decorative features, and it is, therefore, only possible to say that the earliest types of wainscotting consist of narrow vertical boards, overlapping on their edges, or "clinker-built," - to use the shipwright's term, - fastened to the walls with large clout-headed nails. This clinker-boarding is seldom of more than dado-height and usually has a half-round or simple moulded capping (see Figs. 266 and 267).
The next stage in the evolution is a framing of styles and rails, tenoned, mortised and pinned at the joints, with panels fixed in grooves. In the first examples of this kind there are top and bottom, but no intermediate rails, and the panels are moulded on their face, with either an embryonic or an actual linen-folding (see Fig. 260). From this to the small panel, with intermediate rails, is a rapid step, and the pattern of the linenfold develops at the same time.
It may be worth while to speculate as to the reasons why oak panellings make their appearance at such a late stage in the history of English woodwork as almost the end of the fifteenth century, and why they begin with crude clinker-boardings, evolving, only at a later stage, into properly framed panellings. It is impossible to imagine that they introduce the tenoned-and-mortised framing into English carpentry; we know, especially in the case of Church woodwork, that framing was known and practised centuries before. Thus, in the door, Fig. 256, which is not later than about 1320, the outer framing is constructed with tenons and mortises, secured to the vertical back-boarding with large iron nails. This example has more the appearance of a section of panelling than of a door; with the necessary duplication, a room could easily have been wainscotted with the repetition of this pattern. Framed panellings, therefore, were potential possibilities as early as the first years of the fourteenth century, yet none appear to have been made for at least a century and a half afterwards. There must be a reason for this, and, in all probability, there are several.
In the first place, the ecclesiastical establishments led the way in luxury and refinement, until the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and it is in clerical houses that one would look for early examples of panellings. But here, as a rule, there was nothing between the vast refectory, or nave, and the small room or closet. In the former, with walls of stone, often enriched with columns or arcadings, panellings would be impossible, and in the latter, a much more decorative and efficient wall-covering was at hand, in tapestries or Arras hangings. Had the art of the tapestry-weaver not been so appreciated, and fostered, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there is little doubt that panellings would have made a much earlier appearance than they actually did.
From the will of William of Wykeham we get an idea of the furnishings of an opulent and luxury-loving prelate at the close of the fourteenth century. To the Bishop of London, Robert Braybrooke, he leaves the whole suite of the tapestry hangings from his palace at Winchester, and there is no doubt that the walls of all the principal rooms, including the bedchamber, were hung in this manner. So much for the high clergy of this date. Royal palaces were similarly furnished, and there is a great probability that tapestries, chiefly from France and the Low Countries, were the usual wall-coverings, in rich houses, at the commencement of the fifteenth century.
With the Great Hall, of vast size, and often stone-built, the bareness of walls would not be keenly felt, and the smaller rooms were nearly always Arras-hung, as we know from contemporary records. With timber buildings, however, where spaces between the oak studs were filled with clay and chopped straw on a rough willow lathing, finished off with a skin of plaster, wooden panellings became almost a logical necessity, in the absence of tapestries. That many decorations in imitation of tapestries, such as painted hangings of linen or canvas were used, we know from numerous records and inventories, where references to " painted " or "steynid cloths" are frequent. Thus, in the second part of King Henry IV, Mistress Quickly says: "By this heavenly ground I tread on, I must be fain to pawn both my plate and the tapestry of my dining chambers "; to which Falstaff replies, " Glasses, glasses, is the only drinking; and for thy walls, a pretty slight drollery, the story of the Prodigal, or the German hunting in water-work, is worth a thousand of these bed-hangings and these fly-bitten tapestries." It is doubtful whether Shakespeare was not taking a liberty with probabilities in this speech of Mistress Quickly, as tapestries would not have been used as wall-hangings in the dining-room of an inn, but with these painted cloths, in " water-work," he would have been well acquainted, as they must have been in general use, to hide walls of timber and plaster, in the late sixteenth century.
Fig. 257. Portion Of Painted Decoration On Plaster Between Studdings. - Late sixteenth century. - Colchester Museum.
Date about 1640. - Fig. 258. Painted Frieze On Plaster. - 1 ft. 6 1/2 ins. high by 7 ft. 4 ins. long. - Victoria and Albert Museum.
Fig. 259. Painted Wall Decoration On Plaster. - 6 ft. 3 ins. high by 2 ft. wide. Late sixteenth century. - Victoria and Albert Museum.