When a letter came through my door last Autumn inviting me to consider painting a wall in one of the most important Roman Villas in the country I was somewhat taken aback. What did I know about Roman Wall Painting?
A major transformation project has been carried out at the Chedworth Roman Villa by the National Trust during the winter and as a part of the refurbishments a purpose built educational facility has been added on behind the café area. This will be known as the ‘Salway’ room and will provide schools and community groups with a dedicated and inspiring area in which to explore Roman life and culture at the Villa. It is having a recreation of a Roman Kitchen at one end, and an ‘eye-mat’ is being fitted on the floor digitally recreating some of the mosaics from the dining-room. That just leaves the walls and that’s where I came in.
It was with some trepidation that I agreed to meet up with eminent Roman historian Professor Peter Salway and Dr. Rupert Goulding (National Trust curator at the Sherborne Park Estate), both consultants to the improvements on the site, along with Jane Lewis, the learning officer at the Villa. I had already bought a wonderful book I’d found on the internet ‘The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting’ by Umberto Pappalardo so I had done some homework, but the meeting was a steep learning curve. However they were all very encouraging and the exchange of ideas was stimulating, not to say a bit mind-boggling! I knew at this point that I had my work cut out.
Examples of actual Roman wall painting:
Unlike my preconceptions the Romans loved bright colour and bling. Never mind less is more, they loved reds and golds, intricate borders, mixtures of styles, fake marbled panels, friezes and painted scenes from ceiling to floor. I could see the styles and colour schemes in the houses of Pompeii from my book, but how was I to translate these as relevant to Chedworth, and how to do it in the time allotted?
When I arrived the room had no doors windows or heating, but the wall was as shown above, divided into three by two timber supports. After consultation we decided to have three central panels surrounded by borders, edged by columns, a dado rail below and a frieze along the top. The left hand panel would depict a hunter returning with his catch, the central panel would show the Chi-rho, a Christian symbol found at the Villa and the right hand panel would be a painting of the Villa itself. My mock-up drawing of it was as follows:
Once I had bought some tester pots of Farrow and Ball paints and had done some experimenting on the walls of my studio, I began the more straightforward task of measuring up, masking off and blocking out the areas of colour on the wall. At least it should have been straightforward. Due to technical problems with the building work the doors and windows failed to arrive at the room during the week I had allotted to making ‘a good start’. Arriving on the first day the temperature outside was minus 4 degrees! Not much warmer inside I nevertheless drew out the initial designs on the walls but coming back the next morning some of my paints were frozen solid! So I had to adjourn for 10 days or so, during which time I decided to paint the inner panels in my studio on 4mm mdf to save time and hopefully get a better result.
The hunter panel was inspired by a small stone carving which can be seen in the Villa’s museum of artefacts showing a hunter-god with a hare, dog and stag.
He also features on part of the dining-room mosaic clutching the hare. I worked up my sketch showing the hunter wearing a hooded cloak or ‘Byruss Britannicus’ and a blue tunic with embroidered stripes or ‘roundels’, striped leggings and simple shoes. Also some Roman snails as they liked filling up empty spaces in their pictures!
The central panel depicts the principal Christian symbol in use at the time of the Villa, the Chi-rho incorporating the two letters X and P, the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’ in Greek. My initial sketch for the panel also shows other symbols around including the fish, peacock, pomegranate, dove and two-handled urn. Along with the laurel wreath these are all interpretive symbols, against a background of a garden setting.
The finished Chi-Rho panel with a distinctly Roman border, taken from one of the mosaics.
The third panel depicting the Villa as it may have looked in c.360 AD was more or less copied from the publicity painting supplied by the National Trust as I had no other reference from which to work. I have simplified it rather and just shown a small hunting party making their way home into the Villa.
But then back to the room itself, and when the doors and windows were fitted and the room was finally warm I had the task of painting all the rest of the wall. I got through an awful lot of masking tape to achieve the clean edges of the borders, although I deliberately painted some of them freehand to give the design some ‘liveliness’ here and there.
The borders took the most time, particularly the ‘egg and dart’ one, the inspiration which came from a house in Pompeii, along with the colours surrounding it.
A natural sponge was useful in giving texture to the panels – I know that ‘marbling’ is a skill unto itself but economies of time dictated certain of my methods. I didn’t worry too much about the authenticity of the columns with their ‘Corinthian’ capitals as it was the spirit of the Roman wall painting I was trying to capture. The wall painters of ancient Rome and Pompeii mixed whatever styles they liked and often lapsed into complete fantasy with their columns!
The ‘frieze’ saw me up a ladder painting with the barest of stencilling with a signwriter’s brush. The design was inspired by yet more of the mosaic in the Triclinium, or dining room of the villa. It was almost the last day of what by now had become something of marathon paint. I rather liked the colour which was ‘duck egg’.
I couldn’t resist signing the wall and dating it by ‘carving’ on the podium below the furthest column.
And thus I put the last brushstrokes to the ‘Salway Room’ of the Chedworth Roman Villa.
Here is a photo of me having just finished, but the eye-mat with its digital mosaic surface was not yet in place. If you wish to see Chedworth Roman Villa and its amazing mosaics, and have a coffee in its newly refurbished café, visit the website here for details:
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