1

John Preston continues our series
of case studies with unexpected discoveries
of medieval wall paintings.
DOMESTIC WALL PAINTINGS ON PLASTER
7 AND 9 SILVER STREET, ELY
When I started as a Conservation Officer with Cambridgeshire County Council, flittie thought that I would be nominated to the management committee of a local housing association, and that in that capacity I would find myself seeing the system from the other side in a difficult renovation project! This case study highlights some of the difficulties we had to face.
The Cambridgeshire Cottage Improvement Society is hardly a normal housing association, with 47 housing units made up of 44 listed cottages, one pair of unlisted cottages, and one converted nineteenth century barn and having the twin aims of providing low cost housing for rent, and maintaining historic cottages. The Society acquired most of its cottages as gifts, and is now looking to acquire further properties, and to develop small schemes of housing for rent in the villages.
The six tenements, now four cottages in Silver Street, Ely, were left to the society in 1977; when the middle two became vacant, we took the opportunity to renovate and update all four (grade II listed). We knew we had a medieval building, apparently (and unusually for this area) of Wealden type with a fine crown post in the attic; the character and detailing of the frame suggested a late fifteenth or early sixteenth century date. Soot on the crown post and on the plaster at high level provided clear evidence of an original open fire. Shortly afterwards, another timber framed bay had been added to the west cross wing, with a jetty in the gable wall and to the street. In the sixteenth century, an upper floor was inserted in the hall space, and the front wall
was built out with a jetty flush with those of the crosswings; a chimney stack was built at about the same time in the area of the cross passage, and a gabled brick wall with chimney and a stepped parapet was added to the solar cross-wing. This chimney also serves the cottage to the east, whose walls are salvaged medieval stonework. In the nineteeth century the timber framed building was divided into four cottages, and its whole front was underbuilt in brick.
Our renovation scheme involved opening up the original open hail as a single first floor space open to the roof, leaving the central cottage with one bedroom only (but some bedroom!); this was made possible by taking out a later staircase, ‘borrowing’ another staircase from the next cottage, and contriving a bathroom in a previously inaccessible boxroom. The resulting units were hardly conventional housing association material, but our application for funding went in to the Housing Corporation and proceeded without problems.
This was late in 1987, and while our listed building consent and funding applications were being considered, the architect John Wisbey started pulling away wallpaper to examine the timber frame before drawing up a detailed specification. To his and our surprise, wall paintings were revealed, first in the ‘solar’ space and then on a ground floor wall of what had been the open hall. The discovery prompted mixed reactions of pleasure at finding something special, and horror at the potential financial implications. In my own case, there was also a strong feeling of the biter being bit, as I had recently been involved as Conservation
Officer in insisting on the saving of a seventeenth century painted room, discovered during renovation of a house in South Cambridgeshire, which led to major financial problems for the owners as well as long delays.
The potential costs were very worlying for the Society, whose rent income is low, and which has little working capital. It was lucky that a painting conservator was working at the cathedral nearby; the Society agreed to pay for her to carry out a survey at a cost of £65O. This showed that the paintings were very early and rare, and suggested that the costs of repairing them would be high. We contacted English Heritage, and Jan Keevil of its Conservation Studio came out very quickly; while he confirmed the importance of the paintings, he could not answer the vital questions: could we get a grant, if so how much, and what would English Heritage advise us to do if we could not get a grant?
To support our grant application, we sought the views of Clive Rouse and of David Park, Director of the Courtauld Institute’s Conservation of Wail Paintings Department. Both confirmed the importance of the paintings, but the only grant offer we received towards their repair came from East Cambridgeshire District Council (£25OO in addition to the Housing Act grants the Council had already offered). We finally heard from English Heritage that we would not get a grant nearly 18 months after the discovery of the paintings and Jan Keevil’s visit. In the meantime, the Housing Corporation had approved funding for the renovation of the four cottages, plans had
24
CONTEXT 28

1