Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan Period is fabulous starting point for the Elizabethan experience. In it, she outlines your experience were you to journey back to Elizabethan London, starting with the place and its contents, and then examining the people and their life experiences.
Her fourth chapter focuses on the interiors of London’s Buildings: how they were decorated and what they contained. Looking at the section on interior wall coverings provides a great example of the hierarchical manner in which she lays out her book and the fantastic detail and range she covers (p. 51-57). The options of decorating your walls included:
- Plaster – It could be left “uncolored, [it] was a light creamy beige” or it could be colored with different colors of earth or vegetable dyes to give pinks, oranges, greens and blues (p. 52).
- Wall paintings – Possible images included from geometric shapes, faux paneling, biblical stories, costumes of the world, and mythological scenes.
- Wallpaper – Wood-blocked sheets were popular, and among the few extant pieces are heraldic images, floral themes, and strapwork outlines. They were often designed to be pasted on side-by-side to create a repeated or larger design. Printed in only one or two colors, they tend to look busy to the modern eye. For a cheaper alternative, tavern keepers could use unwanted broadsheets and ballads.
- Painted cloths – These weren’t always the cheaper alternative to tapestries that we would expect from a modern perspective, though cheaper versions were available. Biblical scenes, with the characters usually in contemporary Elizabethan clothing, were most popular, but faux wood paneling or small repeated stencils were a popular less-expensive alternative. Painted cloths were usually brightly colored and weren’t always produced on a white or undyed cloth.
- Gilt leather – Sets of leather panels with designs in paint and gilding – or more often with a varnish that closely resembled gilding – began in Spain and traveled through the Low Countries to England. This type of decoration reached its height in the seventeenth century, but the technique continued to be popular into the nineteenth century.
- Embroidered hangings – From bed hangings to panels for room, the wealthy Elizabethan loved to be surrounded with embroidery. For a quicker or cheaper alternative, smaller motifs were often made and appliquéd to hangings. Bess of Hardwick even cut up old church vestments to reuse the embroideries for wall hangings for Hardwick Hall.
- Tapestries – The hallmark wall decoration of the wealthy, the tapestry trade was booming in sixteenth-century London. Bright, colorful tapestries were all the range, though the extant pieces today have faded to muddy muted colors. Like wall paintings and painted cloths, the popular images included biblical and mythological scenes, florals, and heraldic motifs. Tapestries were so sought after that a second-hand market even thrived.
- Wood paneling – The law dictated that anything affixed to the wall was permanent and therefore part of the landlord’s property, so it would seem that wood paneling would be installed more often by homeowners than renters. Yet given the number of court cases arguing over the ownership of “wainscoting,” even some renters preferred the look enough to decorate their homes with it. Designs could include the linen-fold patterns popular in the late Middle Ages, but now it was more popular to have panels in square, rectangle or oval frames, all around your family heraldry, heraldic motifs, portrait busts, or biblical or mythological scenes. Alternately, you could purchase ready-made pilasters and attach them to flat panels to imitate more intricate carvings.