A Weatherspoons pub surviving from Elizabethan times has yielded a set of remarkable wall paintings from around 1580—when the establishment was bought by Queen Elizabeth I’s Chief Adviser William Cecil, also known as the Earl of Salisbury.
The series of six panels, showing significant wear, portray lavishly dressed figures donning the most fashionable couture of that era.
One painting portrays a woman previously thought to be Queen Elizabeth herself—the likeness and garb bearing a striking similarity—but who was later determined not to be the monarch.
After Weatherspoons in 2014 took over The Star pub in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, the establishment underwent refurbishing. The chain hired conservator Mark Perry of The Perry Lithgow Partnership to inspect and conserve the panel paintings.
Although the works required significant removal of layers of dust, insect debris, and cobwebs, they were surprisingly well preserved.
Perry called the paintings “an incredibly rare find” because of their unusual subject matter and the fact that six of them (five being portraits) were found together.
“They have local and national significance,” he told Metro. “You get occasional single portraits like this but to get five, and there may have been more before, is very rare.”
Another figure is a man clasping a bag of money initially thought to be the Queen’s Chief Advisor William Cecil, formally known as Lord Burghley, who was also Her Majesty’s High Treasurer—which the moneybag would suggest.
Recently, this theory was rejected, Perry said.
“The scheme is unlikely to be portraits of the Burghley family as has been suggested,” Perry told The Epoch Times.
“I was contacted early this week by the curator at Burghley House, Jon Culverhouse, who pointed out that Cecil is always portrayed with a full beard—this figure is clean-shaven.”
In addition to the richly adorned figures, the conservator discovered Bible verses inscribed on the panels, pointing to another theory.
“The figures may represent a moralistic theme such as the Virtues and Vices, the males (on red backgrounds) being the Vices, the females (on blue backgrounds) the Virtues,” Perry told the newspaper.
“There are several elements supporting this theory: The male figure [thought to be Cecil initially] is holding weighing scales and a bag of money and could be seen as representing ‘Avarice.’”
A Biblical verse accompanying the portrait reads: “For the desire of money is the root of all evil.”
Perry added, “The female figure holding a lap dog could be read as ‘Fidelity,’ as a lap dog was often portrayed as a symbol of fidelity in such schemes.”
One of the six panels bears a floral design believed to hark back 100 years earlier—before the figures were rendered during the Cecil family’s redecoration. This earlier scheme likely underlies the whole sequence of figurative panels.
“Such schemes were common to this earlier period and often incorporated figures and hunting scenes,” the conservator said.
Particularly in the lower parts, though, the once-richly rendered panels are marked by deterioration, and one of the heads was wiped out entirely during previous work.
Yet, to have survived as part of the pub for so long is remarkable.
“It’s incredibly unusual that this amount of painting has survived for 500 years or so in this kind of condition, especially with the numerous alterations to the building,” Perry told Metro.
“It’s odd that it’s never been destroyed and that it hasn’t been discovered before with the work that has taken place and the fact they are on an external wall, with the risk of damp and damage from the outside.
“It’s almost as if people knew the paintings were there and wanted to keep them.”
The conservator is pleased with Weatherspoons’ curation and responsible protection of the pieces, adding that regular inspections will commence every 5 or 10 years.
Currently, the figures are displayed behind a glass and timber screen to commingle with pubgoers.