The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting

The site of The Relais at The Red Lion (Henley) includes architectural elements that extend from the fifteenth century through to the present day. The construction of the Chantry House, situated between St Mary’s Church in Hart Street and the Thameside courtyard of The Relais, has been dated to 1461 by means of dendrochronology. Historical layering is also evident in a wall painting which dates to 1632, during the reign of Charles I, and is, in fact, the monarch’s coat of arms. It is understood to have commemorated a Royal visit and that the Stuart king stayed in the room where it can still be seen. This room, overlooking the Thames Riverside and the Henley Bridge, is now called the Charles I guestroom. Charles I was born in 1600 in Scotland and crowned in 1625. His tumultuous reign led to conflict and civil war between Royalists and Parliamentarians until, charged with high treason, he died by execution in London in 1649.


We spoke to Mark Perry, the specialist wall painting conservator, appointed to do some much-needed conservation work. Following an initial survey, Mark was impressed that so much of the painting remained. So many have been damaged from being in domestic settings where they were similarly painted in Chimney breasts. During an 1897 refurbishment, the painting was discovered and then enclosed behind glass by the Victorians: ‘That they uncovered it and kept it uncovered and actually made an effort to present it suggests that they were interested in it. They really liked to see the structure of a building and the stonework. While we work on paintings that were really damaged by the Victorians, we also do work on others that were preserved by them.’ We wondered whether there might be any record of the painter: ‘It’s quite hard to say. They are rarely signed. Sometimes you get records. The Painter’s Guild would have belonged to every town. Every region would have had people who would have domestic wall paintings. Some of the more religious paintings were quite often painted by people associated with monasteries or places of worship. But generally they were just itinerant artists.’


Mark set out to stabilise loose plaster and clean surface dirt mentioning that the painting would also have originally ‘been a square shape probably slightly taller’ rather than ‘this strange shape where the two sides have been taken away.’ The painting was composed of water-sensitive pigments which meant that Mark couldn’t ‘just roll swabs directly on it.’ He explained: ‘It’ll just pick the paint up. The colours are quite powdery now and water sensitive. So it’s a case of cleaning through a barrier. We’re using Japanese tissue so just kind of gently dabbing. It’s a bit like a poultice effect where you’re just drawing the dirt off the surface without actually moving the surface’. Mark showed us how he uses water, tissue and a cotton wool swab: ‘You’re just rolling a swab which you moisten in some water and then roll through tissue. The rolling action draws the dirt out’.


Asked about the wall surface that the paint was applied to, Mark told us that it was painted on brick that had hair plaster applied to it (‘horsehair mixed in with a lime mortar’). From a conservation point of view, this is ‘one of the main reasons why so much of it has survived because the hair meshes together so if you get cracks, or things like that, it’s actually still bonded’. We learned that a white limewash ground was applied to the surface and then colours were gradually built up. Samples of paint were taken for analysis and cross-sections revealed layers of paint: ‘You can do various tests to find the types of paint. Basically the red and yellows are earth oxides. The other principal colour is the blue which is Smalt. It’s a silica type pigment prone to fading’. Oils were not used for this painting because, as Mark mentioned, ‘if you mix Smalt with oil it goes dark, it discolours’. We asked Mark about the sources of the paint colours:


The yellows and the reds are naturally recurring earth pigments so you get it in stones and quarries and things like that. You grind them up and transform them into a very fine powder. The black comes from charcoal. Smalt is produced by burning. They used Smalt instead of Azurite. Azurite is an incredibly expensive pigment. Smalt was a cheaper version of it but still has this very intense blue colour.


While Mark worked on the painting, we spoke about its imagery and texts. One of the most distinctive aspects of the painting is the graffiti that Mark identified as he started to clean. He identified names and dates that tell us that the graffiti is from different historical moments: ‘The earliest date I’ve found so far is 1662 so within 30 years this was already being defaced’. The graffiti might have been not only about individuals marking their own presence at a point in time but also about political interests and the defacement of something associated with the Stuarts once they had fallen out of favour. Following civil war and the execution of Charles I, Cromwell became lord protector of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 to 1658. A lion and a unicorn, with anthropomorphic character, are clearly seen. The lion, representing England, is on the left-hand side of the shield while the unicorn, representing Scotland, is on the right. The lion has the distinctive masculine mane and both he and the mythical unicorn are also gendered through the depiction of male genitalia. The unicorn, white with a gold-coloured horn, wears a chained collar (in legend, a free unicorn was considered dangerous). Asked about the damage to the unicorn, Mark speculated that it’s ‘incidental rather than deliberate’. A lot of the other damage you may think is deliberate or defacement is, in fact, due to physical elements such as condensation and cracking.’


The lion and the unicorn each stand on their hind legs while holding a circular shield enclosing a square-shaped, quartered coat of arms. There is a central crown above the shield embellished with what Mark calls ‘nice white dots’ which he thinks are ‘meant to represent pearls - a very simple decoration.’ Each of the quarters contain symbolic imagery, miniature in scale although some of this imagery has faded. Mark drew our attention to the lion of Scotland, the harp of Ireland and the fleur de lis of France. He made out the words around the edge for us: Honi soit qui mal y pense (evil to him who evil thinks). Along the bottom, the banner reads Dieu et mot Droit (God and my right). The painted date, 1632, is considered to be ‘relatively unusual.’ The commonplace motif of a lion above the crown is absent in this coat of arms: ‘There’s not really enough room for that here so it may be that they’ve decided not to paint one. On the other hand, it might be that they changed the structure of the room and therefore that bits been lost. Whenever alterations are done, things like wall paintings are just forgotten about. They go out of fashion.’


The wall painting can be seen to stand for the hotel as a whole – an artefact that embodies change and the different periods that it has existed through. As architects working with historic buildings, we seek to embrace the idea that buildings change, are not static or immutable. As custodians, we endeavour to foreground or evidence this nature. In designing and conceptualising a refurbishment such as this, we enter into a dialogue with many known and unknown authors who have changed and influenced the building over time.

The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting

5 Oct 2021

Yvette Greslé

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