The Wall Paintings of Eton

Fig._ILOW-1The Wall Paintings of Eton  by Emily Howe, Henrietta McBurney, David Park, Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede is published by Scala Publishers Ltd., 2012. 192 pp., fully illustrated.

There are buried treasures at Eton College and the how and why they came to be is a fascinating study. The first such ‘gem’ the book explores is a lavish sequence of scenes portraying miracles of the Virgin, on the north and south walls of the magnificent school chapel, which was executed in the late 15th century.  The second discovery examined is a mural found in 2005 in the Headmaster’s office depicting a schoolroom scene at Eton in the early part of the 16th century, probably painted in 1520.

The book has personal resonance for me as both my sons were scholars at Eton in the recent past. They attended services almost every day in the chapel. At Christmas and occasionally during term time my husband and I would join them, so I have a special interest in the wall paintings.

Although this collaboration between conservators Howe, Park, Rickerby and Shekede, and McBurney, the Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art at Eton, is quite detailed and technical, the clarity of its presentation is refreshingly devoid of the jargon and convoluted expression one often finds in academic studies.  History comes alive as the authors methodically unfold the fascinating stories – some of which are prudent supposition – about how and why the paintings could have been commissioned, their uncertain authorship and the materials used in their creation. They also reflect upon the paintings’ artistic, social and historical significance. Even those with a scant interest in conservation and mediaeval art will find the book inspiring.

The pictorial scheme illuminating the miracles of the Virgin marked the completion of the choir of the chapel, initiated but never completed by the founder of the school, Henry VI. Charged with completing the founder’s ambitious project, it is likely that the Bishop of Winchester, William Waynflete, chose to enhance the walls beneath the great windows with murals rather than tapestries, as the latter would have been too expensive an option. It’s probable that Waynflete absorbed most of the expense, as there are no specific accounts for them in the College records.

The writers explore the theological and historical significance of the iconography of the paintings, which encourages Marian beliefs and devotional practices. How would the congregation have viewed them and benefited from them?   The Eton choir book, a richly illuminated manuscript, is useful for understanding how the scheme would have related to the liturgy. Arguably, the subjects depicted reflect Waynflete’s reputed devotion to Mary Magdalene, long recognised by Christians as one of Christ’s closest followers. In this period the rise of Protestantism resulted in attacks on religious imagery, which some saw as idolatrous. This did not deter Waynflete.

The scheme comprises 32 scenes, ranged in two rows, of a sequence of legendary miracles performed by the Virgin following her death, such as ‘The Legend of the Empress Falsely Accused’ (of infidelity and infanticide) and rescued by the Virgin’s intervention. Some of the scenes depict different moments in the same story. With the exception of the Assumption (when in Christian teaching the Virgin’s body is presumed to have been physically taken up to Heaven), the scenes in the upper registers represented miracles in which men are the subjects, while the figures and subjects in the lower rows are female. Each episode is shown within a rectangular frame and bordered by an hexagonal canopied niche in which stands one of 36 statues of saints, and executed in a predominantly grisaille (grey) palette with touches of colour. An inscription running along the bottom of each scene indicates its subject matter.

Thanks to the enlightened intervention by Montague Rhodes James – scholar, author (the ‘M.R. James’ better known for his ghost stories) and Provost of Eton from 1918 until his death in 1936 – the paintings were exposed and conserved. During his last year as a pupil at Eton, James had spotted two life-size female saints painted on the chapel’s north and south walls. From reading a history of Eton, James knew that the college barber had whitewashed them in 1560.  The Protestant hierarchy was not enamoured of pictures of apocryphal miracles. Subsequent installation of wooden screens and stalls further contributed to their ruinous state.

Later, James published a study of the paintings, together with pencil drawings made by the artist Richard Hamilton Essex in 1847 before they were subject to further ruin. Nearly 40 years ago, Pauline Plummer carried out an extensive conservation programme.

The authors highlight a range of influences that may have informed the composition of the murals, commenting in particular upon their ‘Netherlandish’ character. Technical examination reveals the sophisticated use of an impressive range of pigments and binding media. Notable are the stylistic differences between the north and south walls, suggesting two distinct painting phases. Admittedly, the ‘format, palette and style the paintings represent the cutting edge of courtly fashion in England in the last quarter of the fifteenth century,’ such as, for example, the use of grisaille and compartmentalised narrative sequences.

Undoubtedly, the chapel paintings are a much more elaborate endeavour than the schoolroom image. Tony Little, the Headmaster of Eton, explained to me that it was:

discovered by a workman while he was helping to restore some panelling. Though damaged, the quality of the fragments is startling. Most remarkable to me was the discovery, painted on the picture, of an abbreviated quotation from Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria: ‘the excellence of the teacher is to note the difference in talents [of his pupils]. Centuries later we think of differentiation as something new!

The room where the painting was discovered would have been, at the time, the main school office or reception. What you see on the wall could have been the country’s first school prospectus.  I find it very powerful that there has been teaching and learning and evidence of it for nearly 600 years in the very same place.

The incomplete and dilapidated remains reveal an animated group of boys on the lower right. A watercolour reconstruction by Stephen Conlin, based on imaging and paint analyses, suggests how the mural would have looked originally. In the centre there is the figure of a schoolmaster, vast in scale compared with the boys, seated on a cathedra, a throne-like, high-backed wide wooden chair raised on a plinth – undoubtedly denoting the master’s high status and dignified persona. In one hand he holds a large book and in the other a birch rod. Pupils flank him on both sides. The coats of arms of Eton and of Winchester are depicted, signifying the close relationship between the two schools.

Other expressions quoted on the picture imply reverence for humanist teaching: ‘care must be taken that the punishment does not exceed the offence’ (from Cicero, De officiis), for example. Indeed, the abbreviation of the Quintilian quotation mentioned above is from the book Vulgaria published by William Horman in 1519 which is valued for its humanist approach to learning. It is a Latin textbook with common or everyday sayings – ‘vulgar’ – concerning a range of topics translated into English from Latin, and favours learning by example rather than by rote.  Given that there are no assuredly direct references to the painting in the school accounts (a similar situation to the chapel wall paintings) it may have been paid for by a private individual, such as Robert Aldrich, the Headmaster of Eton from 1515 until 1521, rather than have been commissioned by the College.  Aldrich would have supported the humanist theme of the work; he was a friend and fellow scholar of Horman’s. (Horman was headmaster of Eton from 1485 until 94.)

Although the work is visually coherent, its spacial perspective is not very sophisticated.  What one appreciates is the naturalness of the boys’ expressions and figures, how lively they appear, imbuing the painting with charm and warmth, the sympathetic atmosphere of a humanistic education. It is likely that the detailing and informal style of the mural would have been influenced by the artist’s or artists’ observations of classes rather than solely by other mediaeval woodcuts of similar schoolroom scenes.

The book is a manageable size. The layout of text and illustrations is well balanced. It would have been helpful, for the sake of referencing, if the table of the mural programme could have been a pull out, despite the cost.

What is particularly remarkable about the paintings is their spiritual relevance to people all over world even in our times. In this light I think of the sense of redemption and forgiveness in the chapel scenes and the espousal of humanism in education enthusing the school setting.  Could two late mediaeval murals of such an enlightening nature exist in any other educational institution?


This book was awarded the prestigious William M.B. Berger Prize for British Art History for 2013, which was established in 2001 by the Berger Collection Educational Trust and The British Art Journal.  The prize recognises excellence – a book, exhibition, or exhibition catalogue in any language – in the field of British art history.

The photographs is of Eton College Chapel with a general view of the surviving wall paintings, looking west in the chapel.

This review first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the April 2014 issue.