"It was miraculous": The moment when conservators found John the Baptist in Shakespeare's Schoolroom

By Ben Miller | 21 April 2016

Leading Art Conservator Mark Perry, of The Perry Lithgow Partnership, on finding a new figure in a rare medieval wall painting at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall in Stratford-upon-Avon

A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
The scheme is a Trinity painting © SS&G
“We first got involved with this project in 2008. There’d been a previous investigation in 2004 when a survey and cleaning tests were carried out by another conservator.  We were then commissioned to undertake a revised survey and further treatment tests in 2008 and again in 2013, as the project became more refined.

It’s been gradually revived to tie in with the Shakespeare anniversary, gathering momentum within the last couple of years. We’ve been advising as they’ve gone along. We certainly didn’t expect that the figures we found would be there – it happened as the process went along.

We knew that there was painting on the timbers. From our previous test areas we’d found the hand of Christ and the arm of God overlapping onto the studs. However, the composition of the painting seemed to suggest that the figures were largely painted onto the plain plaster panels. What was left were just silhouettes of very, very fragmentary figures.

A photo of a medieval painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom
John the Baptist is shown with a halo above his head holding a staff and book and cradling a small lamb© Courtesy SS&G
We thought if there was going to be anything on the timbers it would just be a decorative motif. We had no reason to think that there was a figure in that section at all.

We’d had permission from Historic England to uncover certain areas to just investigate what was there, but we hadn’t at all investigated the timber that had the John the Baptist figure on, simply because it was out of what we thought was going to be the main composition.

We thought we already had John the Baptist, the cross and the Virgin Mary, all the various components of the Trinity in attendance. There was no reason to think that a figure would be on the timber and that far over to the right. Apart from anything else it completely unbalanced the composition.

A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
The depiction is alongside God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit© SS&G
It was miraculous. We were just going to do a very light surface clean because the red and yellow paint that was on top had its own historical importance: it’s of late 16th, early 17th origins. You can’t just get rid of these decorative schemes, they have their own decorative significance.

As I damped it down I saw what looked like it could have been a halo and an eye. That’s when we thought there might be something more interesting here. We showed the venue team this and said we thought it was worth investigating further.

Following a meeting with Historic England and the local conservation officer permission was given to do another test area. This eye started peeping through and then I gradually went on and got the top half of the figure. We then had another hiatus while we got permission to do the rest of it, which everyone obviously wanted to do but involved removing some more of this later scheme. Luckily, we got permission in just enough time before the end of the contract.

A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
The painting is thought to have been made some time between 1425 and 1450© SS&G
I personally have never uncovered anything as complete or exciting as this. It’s of such high quality. One of the really lovely things about this is that the face is complete, whereas with a lot of paintings that you find on rood screens the faces have been deliberately defaced during the Reformation.

They’re quite often scratched out: if not the eyes, then often the whole face. To find something so complete is incredibly important from an art historical point of view, not least because it’s the only complete figure remaining on the entire composition.

This enables one to get an impression of how the figures would have appeared. The plan is to put a big smart-glass panel in front of the painting. You flick a switch and it goes opaque to act as a screen, and an image of a conjectural reconstruction of the composition is then projected onto it.

A photo of a medieval painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom
From head to waist, the figure is approximately 40cm high, situated on one of the timber uprights of the building's south gable© Courtesy SS&G
This discovery will really inform the format of the reconstruction that is being put together by an artist working with Dr Kate Giles. It originally had John the Baptist in the wrong place because, until recently, we didn’t have any idea that this figure was there. We’ve uncovered various details that have completely changed the plan.

The idea is that the lights will dim and there’ll be religious music while the projection is made, so everyone can share the experience of being in a sacred space. It reduces the need to have lots of signage.

A photo of the medieval buildings of Shakespeare's Schoolroom in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall have worked with Historic England and Dr Kate Giles, of York University, on the major restoration of the buildings© Courtesy SS&G
Because the painting is so fragmentary it is very difficult for the layman to decipher the remains, so this is an easy way for people to begin to understand how it might once have looked. It also offers a form of physical protection and restricts the adverse effects of UV light.

This discovery has national significance. I’ve been showing it to some friends and colleagues and they’re just as excited as we are. You really don’t find these things very often. I didn’t want to leave work and I couldn’t wait to get back in the morning.”

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A photo of the medieval buildings of Shakespeare's Schoolroom in Stratford-upon-Avon
A front view of the schoolroom and guildhall© Courtesy SS&G
A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
The schoolroom will open to visitors as a cultural attraction at King Edward VI School © SS&G
The building has played important role in the town's civic society for nearly 600 years© SS&G
A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
Shakespeare was educated in the 15th century, Grade I-listed schoolroom© SS&G
A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
Trustees have spent more than ten years planning the new attraction, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund© SS&G
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