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Looking After Wall Paintings

There is a rich and widespread tradition throughout history for covering architectural surfaces with painted decoration. Until the 20th century, wall paintings were commonly used to decorate buildings of all types and status.

Plasters and renders could be covered with a wide range of painted decoration. This included plain colour and decorative patterns to highlight architectural features, the imitation of more expensive materials, figurative schemes, or even the creation of entire storylines across several walls, called narrative schemes.

Wall paintings can be found both inside and on external walls, applied to plain surfaces, mouldings or even across timber and plaster alike. They are an integral part of the building and so are conserved in situ.

Conserving wall paintings requires a combination of:

  • Historical research
  • Looking at the condition of a painting and an assessment of the surrounding environmental conditions
  • Sampling and analysis of the original painting techniques and materials added later

All of these together help to inform future conservation options.

Image gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • 19th-century wall paintings uncovered at Boscobel House, Shropshire
  • Masonry pattern with foliate scrollwork typical of the 14th century.
  • Paintings and maps from the 1930s were discovered in 2015, underneath multiple layers of later decoration, in the Map Room at Eltham Palace, London
  • The dome of the Archer Pavilion, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, painted in the 18th century by Louis Hauduroy.
  • Rare example of in situ Roman wall painting at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent.
  • The 1895 Singing Theatre (seen behind the Roman Temple) with its painted back-drop depicting a pastoral landscape, set in the (real) landscape of Larmer Tree Grounds, in Dorset.
  • Detail of pencil drawings and inscriptions made by conscientious objectors held in the cell block at Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, in 1916
  • Important 12th-century paintings on the north wall of the chancel, St Mary’s Church, Kempley, Gloucestershire
  • A painting of Mickey Mouse at Fort Burgoyne, Dover, Kent, during the Second World War.
  • The 14th-century domestic paintings at Longthorpe Tower
  • Detail of the series of 14th-century paintings of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement in the Chapter House, Westminster Abbey, London
  • Archer Pavilion, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. 18th-century trompe l’oeil paintings in the porch – showing fictive masonry and statuary – by Louis Hauduroy

Where you might find wall paintings

In historic buildings, wall paintings may survive exposed, but they are often hidden under layers of paint, plaster, or wallpaper (or all of these). They can also be concealed behind panelling or later walls or features.

Wall paintings are often found by accident during building works.

Wall Paintings

Wall Paintings

Published 20 March 2018

This guidance describes the types of wall paintings commonly found in historic buildings, how to assess the potential survival of historic painted decoration in your home or building, and what to do if you discover wall paintings.

Wall paintings are especially vulnerable during redecoration or renovation works. During building works, it's usually necessary to protect important surface finishes. Advice on temporary protection will be published on this page soon.

A conservator at work on the 13th-century paintings at Chester Castle, Cheshire.
A conservator at work on the 13th-century paintings at Chester Castle, Cheshire. © Historic England

Commissioning a conservator

Accredited conservators, who have obtained professional recognition through ICON, the Institute of Conservation’s Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR) system, can be found on the Conservation Register database. With wall paintings, as with any other building materials, we highly recommend using a specialist conservator.

Before appointing a conservator, get several quotes. You should also ask to see examples of the conservators’ reports, so you feel confident with the commissioned conservation practice and their proposals. Conservation reports are essential in conservation projects; they may be required when applying for Faculties or Listed Building Consent. Find out here what standard is expected in conservation reports.

Further advice

In recent years, Historic England has published research and guidance on the conservation of wall paintings, and continue to provide specialist advice on the topic. For more information on wall painting conservation and the history of wall paintings in England, please refer to our bibliography.

Further specialist advice can be found through this recommended list of contacts.

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