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Box End House Wall Painting

The wall painting in 1977 [Z50/67/59]
The wall painting in 1977 [Z50/67/59]

Kempston Rural contains a number of impressive houses, among them Box End House. It was listed by Department of Environment in 1977 as Grade II*, in other words of great historic interest. The surveyor considered that the house was a late C16th timber-framed house probably of H-plan in origin but with the right-hand cross wing removed and a gable end built up with stone rubble and the left wing extended forward for one bay in 17th or early 18th century. In 1847 a new principal range was built parallel with the original, facing south. The main wing is of two storeys with heavy close studding exposed to the front and there is an old clay tile roof.

In 1977 an early 17th century wall painting was uncovered in a first floor room showing bull baiting with a charging bull surrounded by dogs, horsemen and hunters; executed in monochrome distemper with bull's and dogs' tongues coloured red. This discovery was the main catalyst for listing the whole building. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a report on the painting by E. Clive Rouse MBE, MA, FSA (1901-1997), a noted expert on wall paintings, dated 29th March 1977 [CRT130Kempston18] which reads as follows: “I visited this most interesting house, partly timber-framed, partly of stone, and with a more recent addition somewhat obscuring the original plan, on Friday 25th March 1977 with Mr. David Baker [County Archaeologist] and others, and discussed the wall painting on the spot”.

“The painting is found in a room on the first floor and is a most important and remarkable one in content, technique and other points. The house should most certainly be listed in quite a high category, and the painting given protection”.

“The painting is carried on a very thin skim of hair plaster, over daub set on reeds within the timber frame, the decoration being carried over the main tie-beam and an extravagantly carved brace and traces can be seen on the heavily jowled timber upright post. The right-hand end has been destroyed by modern partitions and alterations”.

“The entire scheme is carried out in grisaille or monochrome of a blue/grey tone, with black outline, the whole heightened in white”.

“It represents a scene, unique in my experience of Tudor/Jacobean domestic paintings, of bull baiting. One is familiar with hunting scenes involving foxes, stags, hares and boars, and one of bear-baiting. The bull, of fearsome aspect, is in the centre; and these are at least five human figures involved, with a number of dogs, one of which is clearly being tossed by the bull. The landscape setting is unusual, with a house or castle on the skyline, and curious, palm-like foliage. The scene is bordered on the beam with a single-twist or guilloche line, and a similar but deeper border at the base”.

Parts of the painting are in surprisingly good condition, and the pigment surface is hard and sound. But the hair plaster is detached from the backing over large areas, and considerable parts are missing – some I understand destroyed quite recently in the works going on in the house. The surface is dusty and dirty”.

“I can see no alternative but to take the painting off, which should not be too difficult, in order to clean and conserve the whole. It should then be mounted on canvas or thin plaster and if possible replaced, as it would lose much if divorced from its guilloche frame setting and the painting on the brace. But it could be houses in a museum if the owner was not willing to have it replaced and protected”.

Detail of the bull [Z50/67/59]
Detail of the bull [Z50/67/59]