IT is only during recent years that some degree of accurate knowledge has been acquired, regarding the original states of much of the furniture and woodwork which has persisted to the present day, as artistic legacies from centuries gone by. During the nineteenth century, especially, much irreparable harm was done under the guise of restoration. We know now, for example, that nearly all the early silver, of the decorative kind, was gilded, and yet, under the mistaken impression that it was a late addition, this fine water-gilding was often ruthlessly stripped. No one, of any taste, who has seen this original gilt silver and compared it with the cold uninteresting tone of the raw metal, can fail to appreciate the superior decorative qualities of the former. There is also a real purpose served by this gilding; it obviates the necessity of frequent cleaning to remove the inevitable tarnishing to which silver is condemned, and, apart from the saving of labour, frequent cleaning with powder, however refined, must ultimately ruin fine chasing or delicate ornament. In any case, this gilding was the original finish intended by the silversmith, and its integrity should have been respected. To strip the gold from the fine early silver is about as just to the craftsman as it would be to remove the over-glazings from a Reynolds or Gainsborough portrait. There is little doubt that much of the Gothic, and even the later oak woodwork, was decorated in polychrome. In the case of the former, there are examples remaining, such as will be illustrated, in only a small degree, in this chapter, which show that this must have been the usual finish, in nearly every case. We have no right to assume that chancel screens, pulpits, and even roofs, of the fifteenth century, decorated in polychrome, were the exception. There is hardly a Gothic screen to be found, in churches of this period, without traces of colour being visible in the quirks and interstices. To say that this is later daubing which has been removed, is absurd, although, in the case of secular panellings, such over-painting, in the desire to relieve the sombre character of the oak, may have been of frequent occurrence. Yet even here there are examples of stencilled and other ornamentations on panellings still existing which show that there was an original desire for colour decoration. The attempt was often made in another way, - by inlay, - to achieve a relief; why should decorative painting have been ignored ? That nearly all oak work, especially panellings, has been painted, either originally or at a later date, we know from the evidence of the wood itself. The figure, or medullary ray of quartered oak, is lighter than the surrounding wood when it is cut, and this ray does not darken appreciably with exposure to the air. When a lead paint is applied, however, and allowed to remain for some years, it will be found, on removal, to have darkened the raw and in some cases, especially after the paint has been allowed to remain for a very longtime, to have turned it quite black. We hardly ever find figured oak, even of the seventeenth century, without this darkened ray. This will be found to be present in every one of the oak rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum, thereby proving that they must have been painted over, either originally, or at some later period. The crudest daubing will achieve the same result as the most artistic decorative painting, and it is difficult to say when this painting was original and where of subsequent date. In a later chapter, dealing with secular panellings, will be found two mantels from the Herefordshire mansion of Rotherwas, where the panels are emblazoned in colours. They were made in an age which delighted in bright hues in fabrics and in costumes. Why should certain panels have been relieved by bright colours, and the remainder of the woodwork left in sombre oak ? Whether painted decoration on secular panellings was the rule or the exception, can only be surmised. A century or two of conscientious stripping and scouring has removed too much to allow of a comprehensive statement. The frieze of the Abbot's Parlour at Thame is decorated in colours over carved woodwork, and Cardinal Wolsey's Closet at Hampton Court is bright enough in polychrome. Stone, plaster and wood can be found, painted over in pictorial patterns or repeating designs, in many houses in England, and it can be said that such polychrome decoration was not unusual, even if it were not general.
Fig. 92. St. Michael-At-Plea, Norwich, Panel Of Painted Reredos. - Late fifteenth century.
With church woodwork, especially that prior to the dawn of the sixteenth century, there exists a wealth of evidence to show that this was not only originally decorated with colours and gilding, and even ornamented with raised gesso in many instances, but also that the carving was finished (or rather left unfinished) with the intention of such decoration being applied. The late seventeenth-century carved and gilded furniture is, in nearly all examples, completed by the carver, with no attempt at finish beyond the clean cutting of his gouge. It is the gilder who, with his heavy preparation of whiting or lead, puts in the finer details of veining and the like with his pointed sticks, used with water while the preparation is still moist. To strip the gold and preparation from this work is to destroy all its finish. In the same way some of the earlier Gothic woodwork demands the gesso-worker and the luminer. Fillets and surfaces are left flat, specifically for decoration, and without it, the design is not complete.
To examine and to appreciate the finer woodwork of the fifteenth century, if originally decorated, it is necessary to view it as if the original gold, colours and gesso remained. Much has perished either with time, neglect or through wilful damage and deplorable ignorance, but examples still exist, which, with due allowance for the mellowing influence of four centuries, will serve to show that the fifteenth-century church must have been rich in decoration, if not positively rioting with colour.